November 12th 2017
On April 16th I began writing this blog. When I started writing it, I was tentative and afraid. I didn’t know if I was a good enough writer to pen a weekly blog and I didn’t know if I had enough to talk about. Looking back on my entries now it seems that my fears were unnecessary. During this eight-month period I discovered that I could at least tell an interesting story and that I indeed had lots of stuff that I needed to share.
My blogs have been very cathartic for me. Though my intention in writing them was to allow you the chance to get to know me better I never anticipated that writing them would bring me to a better understanding of myself. I guess you never really know how you feel about an issue until you sit down and write about it, and I have to admit that the discoveries that I have made about myself throughout this process have been an absolute gift.
Although I would like to continue sharing my personal stories with you through my blog, the reality is that I need to switch my focus and concentrate on publishing my graphic novel. I have recently taken some steps toward that goal, and I will now be taking the time I normally use to write blog posts to prep my book for publishing as well as organizing a crowd-funding campaign.
Within the next month I hope to have some exciting news to share with you. Until then I need to switch gears and concentrate on the next phase of this project. I will still use the blog as a way of communicating my progress and as a way of keeping everyone in the loop.
Thank you so much for your support so far. It has meant the world to me.
How I met my one and only
November 5th 2017
Something has changed in my life. It happened about two months ago and, though it is not a monumental change, it has still had a profound effect on me. You see, two days out of the week, in order to balance my time alone in my studio, I work with actual people in the admissions and recruitment office at OCAD University. My gig at the university is perfect for me. It helps supplement my income while I work on my book and allows me the much-needed opportunity to socialize. One of the other perks of this two day gig was the fact that my husband, Stacy, also worked for the university and because of that I would get to see him during the day when we walked back and forth between work and home, and also when we ate lunch together. About two months ago, however, Stacy got a new job with another organization and to my dismay, I am finding the absence of him – during those two days – completely unacceptable.
I am missing our walks to and from work. I am missing our conversations at lunch and, though we spend all of our evenings together, I can’t help but shake this feeling that something important has been taken away from us. I suppose that it is silly to mourn the loss of just a few hours, since we literally spend most of our time together. But I treasure my time with Stacy above all else and because of that even the loss of a few hours seems unfair to me.
Stacy is the love of my life. He is my soul mate, my best friend and confidant. We have been together now for 16 years. To me he is always the best looking man in any room, and – as you can tell from my introduction - if he is not in that room I find myself missing his presence. To honour my relationship to this wonderful man, I thought that it was finally time for me to share with you how we first met.
In August of 2001, I was struggling to make a career for myself as a freelance illustrator. My friend Jan Sage was then director of admissions and recruitment at OCAD, and wanting to help me supplement my income, offered me a job as a recruiter for the University. Expressing an interest in the position, but not sure that I wanted to commit to the job, Jan suggested that I attend the annual recruiters’ workshop that was being hosted that year by Queen’s University in Kingston. The workshop, Jan said, would serve to answer most of the questions I had about being a university recruiter and would provide me with all of the information I would need in order to make my decision. With an open mind, I agreed to attend the workshop.
Hitching a ride with a young woman named Julianna, who was also being courted by Jan for a recruiter position, we made our way to Kingston bright and early on a Tuesday morning. Both of us thinking the other one had been briefed about the workshop, Jan had just told us to get ourselves to Queen’s. We arrived at the Queen’s campus uninformed about where to go in order to sign in for the three-day conference. Without the benefit of cell phones, I deduced that if we were from the admissions and recruitment department from OCAD then logically we would sign in for the conference through the same department at Queen’s. Somehow locating the admissions and recruitment, office we walked up to the front desk to inquire about the conference. Behind the desk, to my delight, a handsome young man with the most incredible eyes greeted us. That person, of course, was Stacy.
With a kind voice and pleasant demeanor, Stacy filled us in about the conference. He enthusiastically told us about the day events and proceeded to give us directions to the residence where we would be staying. Smitten from the very beginning, I tried in vain to pay attention to Stacy’s instructions. But in truth my brain had it’s own ideas and instead of processing what he was saying, two questions just kept repeating themselves in my head: “I wonder if he’s gay?” and “I wonder if he’s single”?
Leaving the admissions and recruitment office, Julianna and I got in the car. Assuming that I had been listening to the directions Stacy had given us to get to the residence Victoria Hall, Julianna waited for me to tell her where to go. Still reeling from my encounter with the handsome Stacy and ignorant as to the proper directions to the residence, I smiled and did the only thing that I could. I made them up! Luckily for me, though, the cars ahead us were also on their way to Victoria Hall and blindly telling Julianna to follow them, we ended up at the right destination.
Quickly settling in, and eager for more interactions with Stacy, I unpacked, freshened up, and made my way to the first session of the workshop. It was during that session, that I discovered that recruiters from each of the 20 universities from Ontario were all at this workshop to represent their schools. Wanting to do a good job representing OCAD but determined to stand out, I resolved to make a lasting impression. When the time came for us to introduce our school and ourselves, I told Julianna that I would be happy to act as our representative.
Standing up, I introduced myself to the room and told them a little bit about my experience at OCAD. In concluding my remarks I decided to have a little fun with the crowd. I told them that I was proud of OCAD’s new website and to encourage them to visit it, I jokingly revealed to them that in order to pay my way thorough school I had done some nude modeling and if they were interested they could find pictures of me on our new site. Though I succeeded in eliciting much laughter within the group I unfortunately also succeeded in alienating myself from Julianna who, quite embarrassed by my behaviour, proceeded to not want to have anything to do with me for the rest of the workshop.
On my own but undaunted, I continued to make my presence known. After the introductory session the organizers of the workshop planned an icebreaker in which the participants had to exchange university-branded mugs, which we were all supposed to have brought from our respective schools. The idea being that you would work your way through all the participants by introducing yourself to them all the while exchanging one mug for another until the time allotted was over and in the end you were left with your final exchange. Wanting to participate, but because OCAD did not have branded mugs, I had to improvise. With a quick detour to the dinning hall, I nabbed a plain white mug and with a black permanent marker wrote “OCAD” on the mug. Returning to the icebreaker, I convinced the participants that OCAD’s mug was a minimalist statement. To my surprise and delight it became the most sought-after mug in the game. By the end of the icebreaker, confident that I had made a lasting impression on the group, I decided to shift my focus and start concentrating on getting Stacy to notice me.
With as much stealth as I could muster, I maneuvered myself into his vicinity as much as humanly possible. During the information sessions, I would time my departure to coincide with his in order to give us an opportunity to talk. During breaks,I would purposely separate myself from the group in the hopes of providing him an opening to come speak with me and with every chance that I got I openly tried to engage with him.
To my frustration, however, all my efforts seemed to go unnoticed. Occasionally, Stacy would compliment me on my wardrobe (to this day I have a great collection of funky, vintage shirts) but these compliments were quick and brief and never resulted in the kind of interaction that I was looking for. I like to refer to them as “drive-by compliments”, because by the time I turned to respond to them, Stacy would have already moved on and begun a conversation with somebody else. Clinging to the slim hope that those brief interactions with him were a sign that he was interested in me, I continued to persevere.
On the first night of the workshop, our Queen’s hosts decided to take us all out for a night on the town. After they bussed us all to a little Kingston nightclub, I decided to make full use of the dance floor and try to impress Stacy with my signature moves. As the night progressed, my moves began to garner me some attention from my colleagues. Though I enjoyed the attention, the real reason that I had taken to the floor—to urge Stacy to come and talk to me—still eluded me.
When our hosts announced that the bus that brought us to our destination was shuttling our party back to Queen’s, I knew that since Stacy lived in Kingston he would probably not be boarding the bus. Hoping that when our colleagues had left I could have some time alone with Stacy, I decided to stay at the bar; even though I had no idea how to get back to the campus.
By last call, with some liquid courage in my veins, I finally summoned enough courage to go and talk with Stacy. To my dismay, however, after only a few minutes of talking with him, Stacy excused himself for the evening and left me alone with my drink.
Armed with a terrible sense of direction, I was left alone to try and make my way back to the residence at the university. Though I remarkably made it back to the Queen’s campus with out much trouble, I had unfortunately forgotten the name of the residence in which I was staying. Convinced that the name of the residence that housed me was “Trinity College”, I wandered around the campus for about an hour asking for directions to a residence that did not exist. In the end, finding a sign with a campus map on it, I realized my mistake and eventually found my way back to Victoria Hall. Grateful that I did not have to spend the night sleeping on a park bench, I snuggled into my dorm room bed and just before drifting off wondered what in the world I had to do to get Stacy to notice me.
For the next two days I continued to try everything I could think of to steal some meaningful moments with Stacy. Though he was always pleasant to me, at times I even thought that he was giving me signals that he was interested, we never seemed to get the moment that I was looking for.
On the last night of the workshop, Queen’s hosted a reception at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, which I learned was Queen’s very own campus art gallery. With art being very much in my wheelhouse, I decided that the reception would be the perfect place to make a lasting impression on Stacy. Knowing that night would be my last chance to woo him, I pulled out the tightest shirt from my luggage that I had and I arrived fashionably late to the reception.
When I got to the gallery, I grabbed a glass of wine and began mingling with the other guests in the foyer. When it came time to view the collection I noticed that Stacy was greeting all the guests as they entered the galleries. Realizing that I would probably not get the chance to talk with him about the artwork, because he was manning the door, I reluctantly entered the galleries. As I viewed the work, however, to my surprise Stacy sidled up beside me and asked me what I thought of the exhibition. For the first time since arriving at the workshop I got the chance to really talk with him and I convinced myself that there was a spark there worth pursuing.
Leaving the exhibitions with Stacy by my side, some of the other guests came up to us and asked Stacy why I was permitted to enter the galleries with a glass of wine. Unbeknownst to me, making sure no wine entered the galleries was why he was greeting people at the entrance. Having been busted for giving me preferential treatment, Stacy smoothly replied. “Well, Mark is an artist and I know he wouldn’t do anything to harm the work”.
Taking his reply as a sign that he was interested in me, I happily made my way across the street to the dinning hall where we were to be fed and, later in the evening, entertained by a dance. Arriving at the hall, having alienated my colleague Julianna earlier, I found myself without a place to sit. Thankfully for me, I had made a good impression on my colleagues from the University of Ottawa who, when seeing I was alone, kindly invited me to join them at their table.
Luck must have been on my side that evening, because when I looked up from my seat, in my direct line of sight, diagonally across the hall from me sat Stacy. As the evening progressed, though I socialized with my new friends from uOttawa, I kept glancing over in Stacy’s direction. Feeling confident because of our earlier interaction at the gallery, I eventually made eye contact with Stacy from across the room and raised my wine glass in his direction. Again I felt it, a spark so intense it seemed to charge the entire room.
Now towards the end of the dinner, to my delight, Stacy made his way over to my table. Proclaiming that my table was “the most attractive one at the event”. I blushed. Only to have Stacy - to my great confusion - proceed to ignore me and instead talk up all of the women in the vicinity. Afraid that I might have misjudged him, I began to doubt the spark that I had felt.
Thankfully as I pondered the situation over dessert, however, our eyes met again and I decided to let things play out until I got a definitive answer.
When dinner was over I was one of the first people to take to the dance floor. Surrounded by my new uOttawa friends I did my very best to own the floor. At one point in the evening, I noticed that Stacy had also gotten up to dance. Surrounded by his Queen’s colleagues, he had taken a rose from the centerpiece of one of the dinner tables and was dancing with it in his hand.
Determined to send my own mixed signal, I went over to where he was dancing, grabbed the rose out of his hand, put it in my teeth and then returned to the ladies from uOttawa that I had been dancing with. Knowing that Stacy was watching me, I then passed the rose from my teeth to the teeth of one of the uOttawa ladies, initiating a game that would send that rose, from teeth to teeth, around the dance floor.
After sending the rose on its journey I quickly lost track of it. Then Micheal Jackson’s “Beat It” had come on and I clearly had to concentrate on the music and my choreography in order to get the most out of the song. Exhausted at the end of the song, however, I remember turning to leave the floor when Stacy stopped me in my tracks. With the rose in hand Stacy said, “Look what I’ve got.”
Without missing a beat I looked him in the eyes and said, “If you want to pass that to me you have to do it properly”. Putting the rose in his teeth, Stacy passed it to me and when I went to retrieve it I lingered just long enough for him to realize that my intentions with him were different than they had been with our friends from uOttawa.
Finally getting the message, Stacy made up for lost time and asked me if I would like to go someplace else with him. With breathless anticipation, we left campus, hopped in a cab and made our way to Wally’s the only gay bar in Kingston. Seeing that it was a Thursday night, however, no one was at Wally’s and so we made our way to two other bars until we finally decided to go to Stages. Though Stages is probably the straightest bar in Kingston, I didn’t care as long as I was getting to finally spend time with the boy I had been chasing for the past three days.
When last call came around, Stacy and I left Stages and began walking toward the University. At one point Stacy stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and told me that I had a choice to make. I could either leave and make my way back to the university, or I could continue walking and go home with him. Being the sweet man that he is, he told me that he wasn’t ready for our night to be over and that he had no expectations other than getting to spend more time with me. Understanding that I wasn’t just some “trick” and also not wanting the night to be over, I agreed to go home with him.
When we got to his apartment we went into his living room and I went directly to his bookcase and sat down in front of it. I have always believed you can tell a lot about a person from what is on their bookcase. Sitting on the hardwood floor, we began our talk about books. But that was just the jumping-off point. We talked about a lot of things that night and didn’t get off that floor until the morning sun started streaming though his living room windows. It was only at that moment that we stopped talking; only at that moment did we kiss.
With just a few hours before the workshop was set to begin again, Stacy asked me if I would like to try and get some sleep. He offered to share his bed with me so that we could snuggle. Wanting to be as close to him as possible, I of course accepted his invitation.
Excusing himself he went to his bedroom and thoughtfully changed the sheets. He then asked me what I usually sleep in. When I said, “a t-shirt and underwear”, he went to his dresser, rifled through his drawers, and picked out his softest t-shirt for me to wear.
I can still remember the feeling of him holding me as we went to sleep. Even back then I think that I knew I had found the piece in my life that I had been missing –the one person who was destined to make me whole.
The next day, neither of us was in very good shape to participate in the workshop. I struggled through the morning sessions, tired and giddy, wishing all the while that I could have just stayed snuggling with him in his bed.
At the end of the morning we had to say goodbye to each other. I had to go back to Toronto and he was scheduled to go visit his family in Aylmer, Quebec. I remember being sad on the drive home with Julianna, but keeping that sadness and my three-day romance a secret. Those three days were mine and I wasn’t ready to share them with just anyone. Instead I replayed those days over in my head on the long ride back to Toronto. I must have been horrible company.
So much was uncertain back then, so much had to be figured out. All I knew was that I had found someone special and I would do everything in my power to hold on to him.
So that is the story about how Stacy and I first met. Well, it is my version of the story anyway. I am sure Stacy has his own take on our first meeting and his point of view is probably quite different. Oh, and by the way: the name of the place where that fateful dinner and dance occurred was Ban Righ Hall. Exactly eight years later, Stacy and I held our wedding dinner and reception there.
Like I said in the beginning, I have been with Stacy for 16 years now. During that time we have had our trials and our tribulations, our ups and our downs but through it all there is nobody I would rather have by my side. He is my strength when I am weakened, my compass when I am lost or confused, and my light in the darkness. My husband is smart and funny, charming and loyal, kind and brave and the first person I want by my side when things is the world seem uncertain. His example inspires me to be a better person, his unconditional love validates my truth, his presence emboldens and strengthens me and when I lack the courage to follow my dreams I only have to look into his beautiful eyes in order to find it.
October 29th 2017
The words don’t seem to be coming to me lately so I decided to give myself a break and create an abstract piece for my blog this week. I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out and feel it says everything I needed to express this week.
October 22nd 2017
I was looking through old pictures today. It wasn’t a trip down memory lane. It wasn’t for nostalgia purposes. I was looking for something specific; a picture that means the world to me. Back in 1996, during my second year at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, I found a vintage turquoise corduroy smoking jacket with silk lapels and cuffs that I wore almost every day. It was not something that I wore to the College; rather, it was something that I put on at the end of the day, when I returned home to the student co-op in which I lived.
Although the jacket sounds fancy, it wasn’t. In fact, this jacket was worn out in all the right places and fit more like a comfortable sweatshirt than it did like a formal garment. That said, it was still out of place at everyday co-op gatherings making me seem somewhat precious and eccentric. Back then, however, I loved making a statement and looked at such labels not as judgments but instead as badges of honour.
I loved that smoking jacket! It looked great with a t-shirt and jeans but I could also dress it up with dress pants, patent leather shoes, and a crisp white shirt. No one could ignore the guy at a party (or indeed the dinning hall for dinner) wearing a jacket like that, and I lived for that kind of attention. When I wore that jacket, I had to be the type of person that could pull off that wardrobe choice. As a result, when I was in that jacket, I was funnier, more outrageous and never at a loss for words. I have since had clothes that have similarly made me feel confident, but that jacket was the first and, because of that, it will always have a special place for it in my heart.
I don’t have the jacket anymore. I wore it so often that it eventually just fell apart, and I threw it out. Though I looked all morning through old photographs to find a picture of me in it, I couldn’t even find one. When I close my eyes I can see it as clear as day. I remember how it felt, how it smelled, but most of all I can remember how it made me feel. Never was I more popular or more self-assured than when I was wearing that jacket.
So why am I telling you about this old jacket? One that I have no tangible proof existed?
Even though that jacket wasn’t around in 2000, when I finally came out of the closet, it still played a small but important role in that fateful journey. You see apparently –back then – when people saw me in that jacket, I was just so fabulous, that they just assumed that I was gay. When I heard this, however, instead of abandoning my jacket and asserting my heterosexuality, like I would have done in the past, I decided that I didn’t care what people thought and wore my jacket with pride. Wearing that jacket – in the relative safety among my co-op friends –marked a turning point for me; one that displaced my homophobic past and left me open, thankfully, to a more inclusive and open-minded future. When I was in that jacket, I realized that people didn’t care so much about whether I was gay or not: they just simply wanted to be around the eccentric guy whose personality filled up the room. That jacket taught me a valuable lesson and, though it would still take me years before I could put that lesson to good use, what I learned was if you surround yourself with good people, no one really cares what your sexual preferences are.
I wish that I still had that jacket. I wish that I could try it on; feel its softness against my skin and bask in the comfortable self-assured feeling that I always felt when wearing it. In my head I know it would not feel the same; that I am not the same person that wore that jacket so many years ago, that I am courageous without it, but in my heart I long for it just the same.
“Hello darkness my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.”
October 15th 2017
I struggled with writing my blog today. The words just didn’t seem to want to come. Sometimes that happens. Most of the time, I just persevere and work through the block but today I just wanted to give up. None of the words that I put down on the page today seemed quite right. In fact they all seemed quite inadequate. Words can fail a writer sometimes and after hours of agonizing over the right combination of words I realized I just wasn’t up to writing a blog today. Well, not the blog I started out writing anyway.
I woke up with doubt today. I woke up in sadness. You see, I have been living with depression for many years and, while most of the time I am fine, some days I relapse and it gets the best of me. I am doing all the right things. I see a therapist. I take antidepressants. I practice mindfulness. I meditate. But sometimes, despite all my efforts, the darkness moves in; takes over and derails my day. During those times I doubt my work and myself. I tell myself that the book isn’t worth the ten years that I spent on it, and lament the fact that I do not have a real—or at least conventional— career. In this unhealthy state, I lose hope that anyone will ever see my book and I fear that my efforts to publicize it through social media are at best misguided and, at worst, pointless.
It is easy for me during these dark days to let my mood spiral out of control. It is easy for me to just want to give up. On these days, though, I have to remind myself that the disease of depression distorts my reality and stops me from seeing the good things in my life; a horrible perspective for sure but one that can be fought against and, with practice, overcome.
I fight the good fight everyday. Most of the time it is fairly easy. My truly dark days are thankfully behind me. But on days like today it can still be a challenge to even get out of bed.
I am writing about my fight against depression today because I made a promise to myself to always speak the truth in my blogs. And also because dealing with my depression while writing the blog posts as well as during the writing of Justin Case and the Closet Monster has always been something that I have had to contend with.
For some people, depression just doesn’t go away with medication and therapy; it instead becomes part of their makeup lurking in the shadows ready to resurface when appropriately triggered. Though most of my days I do not feel depressed, some days –like today- my depression can reassert itself and leave me scrambling for the right coping mechanism.
Thankfully, however, I have learned to manage my depression. Being mindful and meditating helps, but I must always be vigilant in order to safeguard myself against feeling overwhelmed. I am proud to say that depression no longer rules my life or robs me of my happiness and though I wish it would go away completely I know, from past experience, that I am strong enough to fight it.
So why am I sharing all of this with you today? To tell you the truth: when trying to write my blog today these are the only words that felt right. Sometimes I write a blog and sometimes it writes itself.
Today I wrote this blog in the hopes of shinning a light on something that we do not like to talk about. If you suffer from depression or anxiety you know that there is a terrible stigma attached to this illness. Some insist that it isn’t a real illness at all. They believe that depression is merely weakness or laziness. With stigma comes shame and, knowing a little bit about shame from my time in the closet, I know the only way to diminish that shame is to share.
So as scary as it is to divulge my battle with depression to you, I do it in the hopes that hearing my story may help to strip that stigma of its power. I am not weak. I am not lazy. There is no shame in admitting that you struggle and asking for help is most definitely a sign of courage and strength and not a sign of fragility. In my opinion, people who battle with depression should not feel shame but instead they should feel powerful and brave; because anyone who fights this fight and wins is a fucking hero.
But as I said, at the beginning of this blog, today is a dark day for me. Today I don’t feel much like a hero. Today I must make an effort to be mindful and take the time to meditate. Today I have to fight and remind myself that giving up is not an option and that the hopelessness that I feel is a symptom of my disease and not my reality. Today – as horrible as it feels – is just a bad day and not a reflection of all the days yet to come.
So with all the tools that I have learned from years of therapy I go on fighting the good fight.
So where does that leave us?
Well I need to tell you that I didn’t write this blog for you to feel sorry for me. There is no need. Just because I suffer from periods of depression doesn’t mean I never feel happy. It doesn’t mean that I cannot see the good stuff in my life. I can. I know that I am blessed with a loving family, great friends, and a husband who doesn’t go one day without showing me how much he loves me. My blessings are many and I mindfully count them everyday, especially on a day like today, because they are in the end what keeps the darkness at bay.
In the end, I suppose I was inspired to write this blog today because I could. Because even though it is a bad day today, for the most part I am generally in a good place and that needs to be acknowledged. Though I am not in a place to celebrate today, I am still grateful that I am strong enough to break the silence and overcome my shame because it is only in talking honestly about our struggles that we, as a society, can hope to understand them. It is only then that people like me are made aware that they are not alone.
So for those of you that struggle with the darkness, I pray for you to stay strong and keep fighting the good fight, because even though you might not feel it right now, you are worth it.
“Haters Gonna Hate”
October 8th 2017
Since I was a little boy I have loved monsters. At first I was afraid of them but as I got older I began to see them as misunderstood creatures lashing out at a world that didn’t understand them. When I was struggling to come out of the closet I empathized with monsters because I understood all to well the pain associated with being different. A lot has changed since my time in the closet. I don’t feel like a monster anymore because I have found my place in this world. I am loved and accepted for who I am and I have found my voice. A voice that I am using in order to tell my story so that people like me, who feel different, can choose to live their lives in truth.
There are people in this world, however, who would like to silence my voice, keep me trapped in the closet and like nothing more then for me to continue to feel like a monster. This past weekend I ran a paid ad through Instagram in order to promote my book and continue to grow my audience. Up until this point, I have received nothing but encouragement concerning this project, but when I promoted my book this past weekend on Instagram everything changed. To my disappointment, I received a barrage of negative comments disparaging my efforts and attacking me personally. My book was compared to cancer and called “homosexual propaganda”. Someone else called me a degenerate. Another person told me that he would rather be injected with HIV and rat poison than ever support my efforts. Several people just responded with KYS, which I have since learned is the abbreviation for “kill yourself”. Nice. Aren’t people just great?
Now I know I shouldn’t let these negative attacks get to me. And I am not naïve. I know the internet is a haven for cowardly trolls. In the end, there was only about 20 nasty comments, compared to over 100 people who liked and responded positively to my post, but I have to admit that my feelings were really hurt. It is not easy to put your work, or yourself, out into the world and these comments played perfectly into my insecurities. I suppose, when you are a creator, there is always going to be a part of you who doesn’t believe your work is good enough and it doesn’t take much to bring those feelings bubbling to the surface. Once I acknowledged my insecurities, though, and realized these comments had more to do with the haters than they did with my work, I was able to dismiss them as the garbage that they are.
With the help of my husband Stacy, I also began to realize that these comments, though vile, were also proof that my book was sorely needed. Just the fact that these haters exist, and are unafraid to be so vocal is evidence that gay people are still being marginalized and hated only for being who they are. Though I may not be able to change the mind of my detractors, it is my hope that my book may serve as a life-line to those who are too afraid to live their lives in truth because they have internalized the hate that they have seen manifested around them. My book is a book of hope. It is a book meant to inspire courage, and to educate. It is the book that I needed when I myself was too afraid to ignore the haters in my life and I believe it is a story that needs to be told not only in spite of those haters but also because of them.
Emboldened by this new perspective, I have decided to ignore all of the hateful comments and instead focus on all the positive feedback that my book is generating. Though I have only released 12 pages of my 170-page book, I have already received much encouraging feedback. As I suspected, there are many people struggling with coming out of the closet and my message has struck a chord; some of them have begun to reach out to me. To the people who have done so, I am humbled to have been a part of your journey and hope that your contact with me has lessened your struggle.
It is for those people, and not the haters, that I wrote Justin Case and the Closet Monster. It is for those people that I continue to write my blogs every week. I know from my own personal experience that hearing gay stories can be comforting and, at times, transformative. It is because of this that I have decided to share my own story. I hope that if you are reading my blog regularly and enjoying it, that you will share it with other people you think may benefit from hearing my story.
In ending, I want to share with you one last moving story. This weekend, amidst all of the hate my Instagram ad stirred up, a young person reached out to me to say that they had fallen in love with one of the characters in my book. Wanting to show me how sincere they were, they did their own drawing of the character and posted it on their Instagram feed. With that one sweet gesture - reflecting my own voice back at me - that young person gave me everything I needed in order to defend myself. To that young fan: a giant thank-you. Armed with your drawing as my shield, I feel invincible and ready to test my mettle against the real monsters of this world.
Happily Ever After
October 1st 2017
Stories. Stories were a very crucial part of my development. They helped shape me. I have grown into the person that I am today because of the influence the stories I heard throughout my life have had on me. Those stories have come from many places. They have come from my family; they have come from my friends; I have read them in books, seen them in movies and TV shows and have had them taught to me at church, school and university.
The story that has had the greatest bearing on my life, however, can be traced back to the fairy tales I was once told as a child. In that story a handsome young prince meets a beautiful princess, marries her, and lives happily ever after. I have seen that story recycled and retold countless times throughout my life. It is what I am supposed to want. It is the goal that I am meant to attain.
The boy-meets-girl-boy-marries-girl narrative is so pervasive, it has been re-interpreted thousands of times; through the movies I see, the TV shows that I watch and even the commercials, billboards and print and online ads that are forever vying for my attention. Growing up, I wasn’t even aware that there was any other alternative. There were no stories that spoke of different lived experiences. There was no story about two men falling in love with each other and getting married. There was no “Cinderfella”, no “Peter Pan and Wendell”.
With seemingly only one story to emulate, I did everything that I could to make it fit for me. With blinders firmly fixed, I embraced that story and learned the lessons it was meant to teach me. That story made a deep and lasting impression on me. It became the material in which I crafted my dreams upon. The instruction manual I used in order to construct my life.
I began to look at the world through this dominant and assumptive lens. To illustrate this point and see how this pervasive story affected me let me deconstruct the impact that one of my favourite TV shows, “The Dukes of Hazzard”, had on my young life. Debuting in 1979, when I was 11, that show was just the right combination of comedy and adventure to keep me coming back week after week. On the cusp of puberty my friends and I watched that show, entertained not only by the action but tantalized by the characters we saw on the screen.
I remember all my guy friends being captivated with Catherine Bach’s portrayal of “Daisy Duke” and though I certainly thought she was pretty, I never quite understood why they thought she was such a big deal. I understand now she was supposed to be the person that the boys were attracted to; an archetypical female manufactured for the male gaze, and cast in a story created just for them (To wit: nearly 40 years later, we still refer to jeans shorts as “Daisy Dukes”). Though not exactly a fairy tale princess that needed to be rescued, Daisy was still set up to be the object for the boys’ desires. Again, the message was clear: men are only supposed to desire and fall in love with women.
However, I knew I was different. But, not wanting anyone to know I was different, I suppressed my very real and actual attraction to John Schneider and pretended, to fit in with all the other boys, to be attracted to Daisy. I quickly understood that I could like, admire, and aspire to be like “Bo”—masculine, fun-loving, good guy, awesome car— but it wasn’t okay for me to be attracted to him. It was clear that the only acceptable character in the show for those kinds of feelings was Daisy. With that realization, I quickly came to the inevitable conclusion that the attraction I felt for Bo must have been wrong. It wasn’t the norm. Therefore, I was not normal. Since I didn’t want to be different, and even though part of me suspected back then that I might be gay, I decided to ignore those feelings and do my best to live my life as a straight person.
Overwhelmed with these relentless hetero-normative stories that I was being inundated with every day, I convinced myself that the only way to be truly happy was to be straight. During my early adolescence, having been perceived as being gay and bullied for it, I became even more determined to deny any such feelings and assert my heterosexuality in any way that I could. I needed to avoid the hatred showered down on me by my tormentors. In my senior year of high school, I pushed away my unwanted homosexual feelings and desires, and wanting to distance myself from the label of being gay, I regretfully became very homophobic. No one can call you a “faggot” if you are pointing your finger in disgust at someone else and as a way of self-preservation I had no problem spouting my own kind of hurtful homophobic rhetoric. Determined to be normal, and wanting most of all to be perceived that way, I began my search for a girlfriend.
Now, hindsight tells me that I was struggling with my sexuality and suppressing my true self, but at the time I was in such denial I wasn’t even fully aware of my actual desires. To be afraid to even entertain the notion that I was gay, I whole-heartedly believed that I could live my life as a straight person. Presenting myself as straight then was not an attempt to deceive anybody; it was in fact the only identity that I could realistically be. I had no possible way—no support, no stories, no role models, no guidance—to be able to begin to even think of grappling with my true feelings.
So, I chose to be straight. I embraced that identity and with clarity of purpose became overjoyed when a girl, in my senior year of high school, actually showed an interest in me. As you know, from my other blog posts, it is during this time that I began my own theatre group. It was through that group that I met this young woman who for some reason thought that I was attractive. Though not very experienced in the ways of dating I did my best to pursue her. When I realized that she had feelings for me I was overjoyed. I liked her a lot. She was funny, charming and very pretty.
I wanted very much for her to be my girlfriend, and did everything that I could to win her over. But, to my disappointment, something was holding me back. I could handle being her friend. I loved talking and spending time with her. Being her friend was awesome. But, unfortunately, I just couldn’t bring myself to be intimate with her.
Convincing myself that she simply wasn’t the right girl for me, I refused to acknowledge that I wasn’t capable of returning her feelings and instead just pushed her away. I never explained to her that there was nothing wrong with her and that the fault lied with me. Instead, I just let her think that I had lost interest in her. She deserved much better treatment from me, an explanation of my hot and cold behavior towards her, and I will be forever sorry that I wasn’t able to give her what she deserved.
I of course know now what my real reason for pushing her away was, but I wasn’t self-aware or brave enough back then to admit the truth to myself. I will always be sorry for hurting her.
I wish that I could say that she was the only woman that I hurt. I wish I could say that I learned from that experience and did the soul-searching work that so desperately needed to be done. But I had written a story for myself, one that conformed to societal pressures and I was too afraid to give it up. I wanted the fairy tale, the one that had been fed to me since I was a boy and I was going to do everything in my power to get it.
In the summer of 1992 the curtain closed for the last time on a play from my theatre company. Hitting it off with the leading lady from that play I forged an intense and meaningful friendship. The young woman was clever, witty, energetic and fun. She challenged me, helped nurture my passions and kept my ego in check. She seemed to me the perfect candidate for my ideal girlfriend and though she was seeing someone else, at the time, I convinced myself that she was destined to be with me; that she was the missing piece in my story.
Never having had a girlfriend, at 22, I was eager to prove to everyone that the rumours were not true and I really wasn’t gay. So with the intent of speeding up the process I gave my friend an ultimatum. Either she would be my girlfriend or I would end the friendship. Regretfully my actions ended our friendship and I haven’t spoken to her since.
I wanted so badly to be the perfect guy with the perfect girlfriend. That was the story I thought I deserved and sadly I was willing to sabotage a friendship in order to get it.
Looking back, I can see I was so afraid that people would see my platonic relationship with my friend and assume we weren’t together because I was gay that I felt compelled to change its dynamic. I know now that I was just too afraid to admit to myself that I wasn’t straight and that the story I was trying so hard to conform to was never meant for me.
Struggling with those issues, I went off to study at the Ontario College of Art in the fall of 1995. In that first year at OCA, determined to finally have a girlfriend, I began my hunt again for the ideal woman. This time around, embarrassed to be a virgin at 25, I was resolved to actually have a relationship in which I could have sex. A couple of months into the term I began to date a beautiful woman studying at the University of Toronto. Smitten with her, I tried my best to be the perfect boyfriend and hoped things would eventually lead to something more intimate. Though I was nervous and hesitant about having sex, I just assumed that that was because I was so inexperienced. In the end, when the moment finally arrived, I believe that we both enjoyed ourselves and I will be forever grateful that my first time was with someone loving and caring. Relieved that I had finally been with a woman, I tried to relax and settle into the relationship.
To my dismay, though I had enjoyed being with her very much, when we were intimate with each other something just never felt quite right. As friends we were great but the longer we were together the more I started to feel anxious about being intimate with her and that anxiety began to make feel me unhappy. After about a month together I decided that things were not working out, choosing once again to believe that she just wasn’t the right woman for me, I broke it off with her.
In retrospect I am disappointed in myself that I couldn’t see the writing on the wall; that I couldn’t be honest with myself about who I really was. I am not proud of the selfish man I was back then; a man who risked the feelings of women just to try to conform to a story that was never going to be right for him. Although I was misguided I take small consolation in the fact that it was never my intention to hurt anyone.
For years I tried very hard to find that elusive woman that would finally make me happy. I never did find her. Instead I had to start looking for stories that would validate who I really was.
Stories. When I finally opened my eyes to who I truly am I found the stories that I needed. Although at first terrified to even enter and walk up the stairs, eventually I found Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop (the world’s oldest LGBTQ bookstore), a haven and special place where I could be myself. Granted, the boy-meets-boy scenario is not as pervasive as it’s heterosexual counterpart but I am happy to report that it does exist. Through those stories I have learned that it is possible to be gay and happy, in them I have envisioned my future and lessened my fears.
I am no longer the confused, sad and fearful young man who selfishly tried to conform to a story that was never right for him. I wrote this blog post to honour the women who tried their best to love me. I am deeply sorry that I hurt them and hope beyond all hope that they have found partners that have made their time with me seem inconsequential.
As for me, in 2001 I found my soul mate, Stacy; a man who makes me a better person just by being in my life. We have been together now for 16 years, we have been married for 8 and everyday that I am with him I am convinced more and more that he is my happily ever after.
About 10 years ago Stacy encouraged me to follow my dream and write Justin Case and the Closet Monster. In a lot of ways it is as much his story as it is mine, for without him it would not exist. It is my hope that this story, as well as these blogs, will help those like me live their lives in truth and that reading about my experiences will help them realize that the only story that they need to emulate is the one they conceive and write for themselves.
Denial and Tigers and Flames, Oh My!
September 24th 2017
Identity. After a misguided attempt to attend York University for theatre studies in 1990, I quit university, returned to my hometown, and worked in the warehouse at the Sears for the next four years. In 1995, at the age of 25, I decided to follow my true passion by moving back to Toronto to enroll in the Illustration program at the Ontario College of Art. After four years of feeling stalled in Cornwall, beginning my studies at the College was like a rebirth for me. Determined to take advantage of this new life I took the opportunity to reinvent myself. Leaving my days in the theatre behind, and my penchant for losing myself in the characters I played, I made a promise to myself to figure out who I truly was.
Throwing myself whole-heartedly into my schoolwork I quickly adjusted to thinking about myself as a visual artist again, an identity that I tried to suppress during my theatre days, but an identity I now found myself delighted to reassert. Like a man starving for nourishment I devoured each project assigned to me, resolving to extract every bit of knowledge I could from each one of my professors. Feeling fulfilled and on the right path with my work I decided to attack life with the same enthusiasm, ringing every last bit of pleasure and experience out of every moment. With this new philosophy in mind it became my goal, when I wasn’t studying or at school, to be the most entertaining person in the room. I lived by the motto that if you worked hard then you needed to play hard as well.
My late 20s and early 30s were all about pushing myself to the limit. Though I was still in denial about my sexuality, with the bullies now long gone, my homophobic behaviour began to fade away. Since I hadn’t had that much experience dating I decided to put myself out there. Though in private I began fantasizing about being with other men, I dated woman exclusively—trying to convince myself that if I found the right one my homoerotic fantasies would just disappear.
I searched a long time, during that time to try and find the right woman for me; a search I suppose in my heart I knew was destined to fail. Though I can see now that search was pointless, it was still a necessary step I needed to take in order to help define myself. Not wanting to be gay I needed to exhaust every possibility that I might be straight so that I could eventually give myself permission to be gay.
When you suppress something about yourself, however, your true nature often reveals itself in other ways. Though I wasn’t open to embracing my true sexuality during this time, I did start to interact with people in a more fluid and ambiguous way. I was testing the water, being different for the sake of being different and seeing how far I could push people’s levels of acceptance. In a conscious effort to be fabulous I prided myself on being outrageously inappropriate and took pleasure in shocking the friends that surrounded me. Though I regret many things that I did when I was in the closet, I do not for one minute regret the incredible amount of fun I had during this time in my life.
To honour that most inappropriate younger self, I thought it fitting to take a break from the serious tone that my blog often takes and rejoice in the retelling of one of my favourite stories from this time in my life. The story in fact that awakened in me the courage to be different which ultimately lead me to becoming more myself.
My story takes place during my first year at the Ontario College of Art, back in the fall of 1995. My favourite class back than was my 2-D design class taught by the incredible Pat Gagnon. I clicked with her right away and always did my best to meet or exceed her exacting expectations.
One day Pat told me that someone working for the organization that planned the famous Brazilian Ball (a huge charity gala in Toronto that ran for almost 50 years) approached her about designing masks to be auctioned off at the event. The project was to be led like a competition and the winning mask would be awarded $1,000. Taking the project to selected students in her classes, Pat thought I would be a perfect candidate and asked me if I would design a mask for the event.
Misunderstanding her and thinking she needed me to design them all I went home that night and designed twenty masks. When I presented Pat my twenty designs the next day we had a good laugh about the misunderstanding but seeing that I had put so much work into the designs she decided to let me produce two finished masks for the event. Proud to be selected, I produced a stunning fire mask and a beautifully rendered butterfly mask.
Hopeful that I would be chosen the winner of the competition I waited restlessly for the results. Though the top prize ended up going to someone else, the judges—so pleased with the quality of the submissions—decided to award five additional prizes in the form of tickets to the ball itself. To my delight, I was one of the recipients of a ticket to the ball. Considering the tickets probably would have been about a $1,000 a plate, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever have the opportunity to attend. With instructions to design costumes similar in theme to the masks that we had designed, the five winners of the tickets were sent home to construct costumes for the big night.
Choosing to take inspiration from one of the mask designs that I had not constructed, I decided that I was going to attend the ball as a tiger. On the night of the ball, with the confidence that only youth can summon, I began the construction of my costume. Clad in a pair of skimpy black jean shorts, a dog collar from an old Halloween costume and a pair of well-worn Doc Martins I began the three-hour process of painting my face and body to look like a tiger. With every exposed inch of my body covered with make-up, you will be pleased to know I got one of my housemates to do my back. I then proceeded to try and hail a cab outside of the Spadina Avenue co-op in which I lived. To my great disappointed, no cab was willing to pick me up. Heart broken and dejected, I went back into my house to complain to my housemates and try to figure out another way to get down to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre where the Brazilian Ball was being held. Wanting to see where my night would take me, and knowing that it would at least lead to a great story, my housemate Marcus offered to give me a ride to my destination.
Dropping me off at the convention centre, I thanked Marcus for the ride and walked confidently into the party. At that moment it was like all the air had been sucked out of the room as it felt like every eye in the place turned to watch me make my entrance. The instant that I set foot over the threshold I realized that I had made a terrible mistake. Rich people’s costume parties were much different than the costume parties that I had had the opportunity to attend. The patrons at this party all held masks on sticks or wore tasteful masks on their faces and instead of costumes the men, to my surprise, were all wearing tuxedos while the women were dressed in formal evening gowns.
As you can imagine I had a decision to make, either I was going to walk into that party and own the room, or I was going to turn tail, literally, and run. Marcus by the way had already peeled out of there.
Taking a deep breath, head held high I walked into that place and decided to revel in the stares and not shrink away from them. Cheeky as could be, I began to introduce myself to people. I let them know I was an artist, and handed out the business cards that I had made especially for the occasion. The cards identified me only as “Tiger Boy” with nothing but a stylized sketch of my face in tiger make-up and my phone number. I even remember telling a shocked, disapproving woman that if she was going to stare she should definitely watch me as I walked away because otherwise she would be missing the best part.
As the night went on and people got drunker I became the belle of the ball. Everyone wanted to know my story and wanted to get their picture taken with me. Ironically, there are probably countless pictures of me from that night in albums across Toronto’s high-society homes but, alas, I don’t even have one. I guess I was too busy living in the moment to care that I wasn’t documenting my night. If it was now, of course, I would be plastered all over social media and you would be able to see me in all my, ahem, glory but instead you will just have to take my word for it.
Once the cocktail hour was over everyone was ushered to his or her table for dinner. After being served dinner that night, a parade of Brazilian dancers were ushered into the hall in order to entertain the guests. Taking their place on a central stage, which was televised on big screens above them, the dancers began to put on a spectacular show. About halfway into their show the dancers began to pull audience members on to the stage in order to dance with them. Eager to be part of the show I tried in vain to get them to notice me and bring me up on stage with them.
After not getting picked, for what seemed like an eternity, I decided to make my own opportunity and boldly went up on stage without an invitation to dazzle the crowd with my own version of the dancers’ moves. It didn’t take long for the dancers to notice, but to my surprise they didn’t usher me off the stage. Instead, seeing that I could hold my own alongside them, they decided to make me part of the show. Unbeknownst to me at that time the cameras had chosen to follow my performance and the people in the hall were treated, via the screens above my head, to me gyrating in time with the music.
Tired of the spotlight I eventually excused myself from the stage and made my way back to the table where my fellow OCA classmates watched me in disbelief. On either side of the stage as I made my way off and back to my table I encountered rows of older woman exclaiming “We saw you on the big screen Tiger Boy. We think you’re wonderful.”
Not wanting to disappoint my fans I quickly got myself a drink and then spent the remainder of my evening dancing the night away with my adoring entourage. I never lacked a partner that evening, dancing from the willing arms of one partner into the waiting arms of the next. For some reason I always knew what to say, mixing the right proportions of outrageousness with playful naïveté. One of my favorite lines of that night being, “Did you know that I am an artist. I think that I would look amazing on you bedroom wall.”
Not surprisingly, I got a lot of proposals that night; some flirtatious and sweet and some down right scandalous. In the end, I refused them all, the backward boy from Cornwall showing his true colours, and instead begged one of my classmates to drive me home.
It took me over an hour to scrub all of the make-up from my body that night, and even though I was tired as I scrubbed I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. That night I discovered it wasn’t so hard to be different. In fact, once I got over the disapproving stares, I found that being unique from everybody else was actually quite intoxicating. Sure, at first people didn’t know what to make of Tiger Boy but after they got to know him and found out what he could do they couldn’t get enough of him. With that night under my belt I began to take pleasure in being different. Every Halloween for four years after that night I would strip down to my skimpy black jean shorts and paint my entire body. Halloween became my favourite holiday; a chance for others to be someone else but for me a chance to be closer in many ways to the person I really wanted to be.
So you probably think that that is the end of the story. It isn’t. In the summer of 2000, months before taking my first steps out of the closet, I painted my body one last time. This time instead of painting it for Halloween I did it as a special self-promotion for my illustration business. My best friend Toni agreed to take the photos for the promotion and I spent the requisite three hours painting my body. The subject of the make-up this time was a bit more abstract and after three hours of pain staking work I emerged from the process as “Fire”.
I remember the day of that photo shoot, like it was yesterday, feeling more comfortable in the body make-up than I did in my own skin. Things, however, were about to change and I knew it. I had laid the groundwork, tested the waters and was ready to jump in with both feet and embrace who I truly was. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes this last grand photo-shoot would serve to mark the transformation to my new identity. An identity I did not have the courage yet to verbalize but could visualize and interpret as marks on my skin.
I love the photos from this shoot because within them I can see myself letting go of my baggage and taking my first tentative steps toward my true self. Interestingly enough once I came out of the closet I never felt the need to strip down and paint myself ever again. That work was done and I didn’t feel the need anymore to make a statement. I suppose I am just content with finally being able to be myself. I am proud to say I don’t have to paint my skin anymore in order to define myself. I know who I am.
September 17th 2017
When I was 12 my mother decided that she was going to have my cousin Haley come and stay with us for a week during the end of the summer holidays. It was during this time that I was having some trouble making friends at school but had become inseparable with my younger cousin, Scott. Seeing how well I got along with Scott, my mother for some reason thought that I would enjoy the company of my even younger cousin, Haley. I was reluctant.
Haley, however, was all in. She was excited to be spending the week with my family, and seemed overjoyed with the prospect of spending time with me. On my best behaviour, I made myself available to my cousin. At first, like any “tween”, I just tolerated her existence, unimpressed with her unwavering optimism. But as the week went on, her unrelenting kindness began to wear me down and I found myself enjoying having her around.
As it turns out, Haley thought that I was funny. She laughed at all my jokes and — having found a willing audience for the first time — I took pride in the sounds of her laughter. I spent hours sitting on the floor in my living room, her with my sister’s Barbies and me with my G.I. Joes striving to come up with the right material in order to make her laugh. It didn’t take me long to discover that Haley’s favourite type of humour was slapstick because she would erupt with laughter every time I made the Barbie car run over Barbie’s little sister. In the hands of our parents, my skit would have been a cautionary tale about looking both ways before crossing the street but in my capable hands it became a hilarious dark joke that never failed to incite glorious gales of laughter. We laughed a lot that week, taking the first steps on the road to becoming good friends and not just merely cousins.
At the end of the week my parents made arrangement to meet up with my aunt and uncle at my grandmother’s place in order to return Haley to her family and bring our visit to an end. When we got to my grandmother’s place I was delighted to find that my cousin Scott and his family were also visiting. With very little sensitivity on my part, I abandoned my new friendship with Haley to run off and play with my cousin Scott.
When Scott discovered that I had been playing Barbies with Haley for the entire week he decided that it would be funny to make fun of me. Not wanting to be thought of as a sissy, a label that I was struggling to shed at school, I told Scott that I was only playing with Haley because I had to. Overhearing my insensitive comment, and already hurt that I had been ignoring her since we arrived at my grandmother’s place, Haley confronted me. With tears in her eyes, in front of the entire family, my cousin Haley told me at the top of her lungs hat she hated me. Not wanting to be outdone, and concerned with saving face in front of my cousin Scott, I told her that I hated her as well. We left that Sunday afternoon without reconciling and that moment has remained etched in my brain ever since.
We have never talked about that day, both of us trying our best to just ignore that it happened. I have never apologized to Haley for what I said. Never told her that I truly loved my time with her that week; that I hadn’t just spent time with her because I had to but because I had truly grown to care about her. I like to think that she erased that horrible moment and chose just to remember the fun we had that week. But I know in my heart my behaviour really hurt her – I saw it in her face - and I will be forever sorry and ashamed for causing her that pain. We are both very sensitive souls and though I can’t erase the pain I caused I hope she will take comfort in the fact that I wish our week together had ended very differently.
Ultimately, Haley forgave me for my behaviour that day. I know because she treats me with warmth and kindness every time she sees me. I still revel in my ability to make her laugh, still see the child in both of us but at the same time am amazed at the incredible woman that she has become.
She is still the caring and compassionate girl I remember from our childhood. The girl who once wrote new lyrics for Anne Murray’s, “Day Dream Believer” to reflect the plight of the homeless. The girl who not only sang those lyrics but took them to heart and grew into a woman who has made a career out of helping people. A woman I am not only proud to be related to but also both inspired and humbled by.
It will probably come as no surprise that Haley was one of the first people in my family, along with her wonderful husband Brad, to be openly supportive of me when I came out of the closet. She welcomed Stacy to the family with open arms and has always went out of her way to make us feel welcome and safe at extended family gatherings.
When I announced that Stacy and I were engaged, and were worried of how the extended family would react and whether they would be willing to attend our wedding, Haley phoned my mother and flat-out inquired if she knew whether or not her and Brad were going to be invited. No one else in my family did that. I don’t know if Haley will ever understand what an incredible gift her phone call to my mother was to us. Not only were her and Brad not freaked out that we wanted to get married they were actively seeking out an invitation.
Haley and Brad’s eagerness to be included in our celebration validated our decision to have a wedding and helped bolster our confidence about going forward with our plans to invite other members of my extended family. Haley and Brad didn’t question why we wanted to get married, or whether we had a right to: they just wanted to make sure that they were included. That gesture went a long way in making the awkward feelings imposed on us –by some of my extended family- seem misdirected.
Haley and Brad - just like our dear friends - thought it was normal for us to want to get married. And though we knew that in our hearts, it was invaluable to have it reflected back to us from such an admired couple within the family. Who knows? Maybe their eagerness to be part of our celebration helped other members of the extended family feel more comfortable being on the guest list. In the end, some of my invited relatives decided not to come and though we were hurt by their decision we decided to concentrate on the people who wanted to be there.
Our wedding was a joyous day. Stacy and I were surrounded by friends and family and we both spoke openly in our speeches about the struggles we both had to overcome in order to have the courage to join with each other that day. We changed a lot of hearts and minds with those speeches and helped my extended family see that our love wasn’t so different from theirs. As I spoke I couldn’t help but see my cousin Haley’s head nod up and down. She was clearly empathizing with what I was saying, laughing at my jokes, crying during the heartfelt moments and beaming as proudly as any sun-kissed rainbow ever could.
Thank you for your support that day dear Haley. I hope that you finally know that I have never considered you my annoying little cousin and though it is true that we can not choose our family, if we could, I would choose you every time.
September 10th 2017
Identity. I have spent my life trying to figure out who I am. In my early adolescence people called me a “faggot”. I couldn’t walk through the hallway at school without somebody using that horrible slur as a cruel way to define me. Back then I hated that people thought I was gay. I also hated that I was being bullied for being perceived as gay. I made a promise to myself that I would do everything in my power to distance myself from that horrible label. I would not let the bullies define me.
In Grade 11 I discovered the theatre. A local theatre company called Glen Productions was holding auditions for the musical “West Side Story” and, even though I couldn’t sing, I decided to audition. Somehow, the director, Richard Forrester, saw something in me and cast me in the role of Action. Getting a role in that play truly changed my life. In a very real way the theatre saved me. It gave me confidence; a place to belong and for the first time in my life imposed an identity upon me that I was proud to adopt. I became a “theatre kid”, loud, obnoxious, confident, and daring.
After “West Side Story” I decided to start my own theatre company and write my own plays. In my senior year of high school, I wrote my first play entitled, “What About Me?” and produced the play through my theatre company that I called Straight Theatre. I chose the name “Straight” because my first play was all about my eldest brother’s struggles with drugs and alcohol addiction and I wanted it known that – in fact I insisted- the members of my theatre company were all drug-free.
With the success of my first play under my belt, I began to believe that I had finally figured out who I was. I wrote and produced three other plays with Straight Theatre trying to recapture the magic of that first production. Though the plays were successful that magic never returned. Little did I know that I was looking for my identity in the wrong place. Looking back at that time now I can see that I was hiding, playing different parts because I was too afraid to be who I truly was: a young gay man. During that time, however, I would not even entertain the notion that I was gay. I convinced myself that I was too busy to have a girlfriend, denying that I was disinterested in girls and hoping beyond hope that no one would notice that I was perpetually single and conclude that the rumours were true and I really was gay.
Wanting to misdirect my friends and prevent them from knowing my suppressed identity I began to tell some of them that the real reason I named my theatre company “Straight” was because I wanted to form a theatre company that was made up of only heterosexuals. I made it clear that I detested gay people and though I never said these words to anyone else, most of my friends knew how I felt and as a result the word spread - amongst the small town community of Cornwall - that Straight Theatre was not accepting of anyone who happened to be gay.
Now I must be clear that Straight Theatre was not just made up of me, and my opinion did not necessarily reflect the opinions of the wonderful directors, choreographers and composers that spent hours working toward a common goal. What we created together was truly remarkable and it is not my intention here to taint the memory of our accomplishments. Some of my colleagues might not have even been aware of my homophobic position and will most likely be disappointed to hear of my bigotry. To them I apologize and hope that they see that the taint is on me alone and in no way a reflection of them.
Needles to say, I am not proud of this time in my life. I was angry with the bullies that tormented me and instead of directing that anger towards them I chose instead to direct it towards gay people. I was so preoccupied with denying that I was gay, so afraid that I was the thing that my tormentors so hated, that I forgot how to empathize or even recognize who was truly being marginalized. Gay people had become the “other”, the thing I most definitely didn’t want to be; a hated thing, and the best way to deny I was that thing was to hate it as strongly as my tormentors had. As a leader in the community it was my responsibility to be accepting and welcoming to everyone and I am truly sorry to all the people that I hurt. My attitude and actions were as deplorable as the bullies who, in the hallways at school, once called me “faggot”.
Afraid, sad and deeply closeted I retreated into my plays. Immersed totally in the theatre I created, I tried in vain to convince myself that each new work would somehow fill the void I felt deep inside me, and that the family I made with each production wouldn’t just disappear after the final curtain call. To the outside world I was confident, slightly arrogant, eternally optimistic and always happy. But inside, I was incomplete, tasked with trying to find myself. I suppose I longed for someone to see the real me, someone to see past the façade, and help me become the person I was destined to be. But the reality is I was too afraid to be that person and, because of that fear, actively kept people at arms-length. That is not to say that I didn’t have wonderful friends; friends that I cared for then and care about now deeply. But back then there was always a part of me that I thought I had to keep hidden, a part of me that I thought was somehow wrong. My friends know me now in a way they didn’t back then and I am so grateful that I can now live my life in truth.
Truth. Something you have much respect for when you are in the closet but not something you have enough courage to live in. While I was hiding behind my theatre group, I met a young man that was courageous enough to live his life in truth. Though he was an actor, he never auditioned for any of my plays, probably because he didn’t feel welcome. But he was a good friend to one of the young women who always did. This young man was openly gay, in a small town that wasn’t very welcoming of that, and chose to wear his sexuality as a badge of honour.
I was afraid of this young man—afraid he might try to expose me, afraid that he might see in me what he saw in himself. He did see through me. Wounded, I am sure by my homophobic behaviour, he told me one night at a party that his friend aforementioned thought for sure that I was gay. They had apparently come to the conclusion together because I had rebuffed her advances and because they had never seen me with a girlfriend. I, of course, denied his accusation insisting that I wasn’t gay. But that night we both knew he had stumbled onto the truth. With more kindness than I deserved, he offered me his friendship, letting me know that he was available if I ever needed to talk. I often wonder how my life would have played out if I had taken him up on his offer but unfortunately I just wasn’t ready yet. That young man never did expose my secret to the rest of my friends and I got the feeling that his offer was genuine and available whenever I found myself in need.
After that incident, and the young man’s incredible kindness, I began to see gay people differently. It would still take me years to accept that I was gay but that young man helped me take the first steps on the road to self-acceptance. From the sidelines I watched him push boundaries, stand his ground and live his life on his own terms. Once when I was working at Le Chateau at the Cornwall Square he entered the store, picked out some dresses and asked me if he could try them on. Shocked, I showed him to a changing room, where he proceeded to try on his selections and ask me what I thought. I served him that day as I would any other customer but I was honestly a little uncomfortable. I have often wondered if he tried those dresses on that day for himself or just to help me push the limits of acceptance. Regardless of his reasons, I went home that night overcome by his fearlessness.
I learned a great deal from that brave young man and have thought of him often over the years. I am sure it would come as no surprise to him that I eventually came out of the closet. It took me years to forgive myself for the homophobic things that I did in the past. But remembering how that young man once was so willing to forgive me let me eventually forgive myself. I don’t know how many gay people my homophobia kept away from my theatre company, and I don’t know how many people I hurt but I hope acknowledging the mistakes of my past and asking for forgiveness will in some small way atone for my abhorrent behaviour.
My path to Justin Case and the Closet Monster has been a rocky one, but it has informed what I have written and though parts of my own personal story may be difficult to forgive, they are a part of my story and must be acknowledged. To live your life in truth means that you must take ownership over everything that you have done, both the good and the bad, and learn to be a better person despite your failings.
Everyday I try to be a good man, loving husband, devoted friend, caring brother, dutiful son, thoughtful uncle and responsible citizen. I know that I don’t always live up to my potential and some days fall short of my expectations but I don’t let those shortcomings prevent me from trying to do better the next day. Humans are imperfect creatures and we must live, learn and sometimes fail in order to grow.
I am proud to say that I am no longer that scared, angry adolescent and after years of searching and growing I have finally learned to love an accept myself for who I am.
Why the World Needs Closet Monsters
September 3 2017
During my early adolescence I was a quiet, artsy loner who wanted desperately to be noticed. I lived a lot in my head during those years often fantasizing about what it would be like to be one of the popular kids. In reality I had nothing in common with those kids that I blindly admired, but in my eyes their existence seemed far more charmed then mine.
In Grade 8 I finally got noticed but not in the way that I hoped. Some boys in my school decided that I was gay and the hate that they chose to shower down on me became truly unbearable. Now, at the time, I didn't identify as being gay, and hardly new what the term “fag” meant. All that I knew for sure was that if people hated “fags” so much, I would do everything in my power to be straight. As a result of being bullied, I became very homophobic. When my circumstances changed -around Grade 11- and I found my own supportive friends, I took every chance I could to distance myself from any and all things supposedly “gay”. You would think I would have remembered what it felt like to be marginalized, but I suppressed everything. With the zeal to become a new person, I turned my hatred for being called gay into a hatred for gay people and had no problem voicing that ignorant opinion. I am not proud of the person I was in high school.
It wasn’t until after university that I displaced my internalized homophobia and allowed myself to explore my sexuality. At first I felt like a hypocrite - which of course I was - but in order to heal and begin my journey to self-acceptance I had to forgive myself. I am truly sorry for the people that I have hurt and I pray that they in their own journey have forgiven me just as I have striven to forgive the people that once bullied me.
Needless to say, I had a lot of baggage to sort through before I could be honest with myself and I wish I had had my own Closet Monster to help guide me through it all. Like so many gay people before me, I took the first step of my journey out of the closet by myself. And I went looking for other people like me. I went to gay-themed movies, bought gay lifestyle and erotica magazines, went to gay nightclubs, and had my first gay sexual experience. Through it all I could have used someone to talk with, someone to tell me it was going to work out. Instead I waffled back and forth, one day accepting who I was only to deny it all the very next day. One of my familiar patterns was to hook up with some guy that I had met at a club on Friday and then spend the rest of the weekend and most of the following week hating myself for what I had done only to repeat the pattern a couple of weeks later. Although what I was doing was in fact no different at all from the tens of thousands of straight folks in Toronto living it up in their 20s, I had no one to tell me I had no reason to hate myself; no one to tell me it was okay to be gay and, sadly, no one to tell me to be safe.
Luckily I made it through those years, and I thank God that everyday in my desperation to connect with someone, I didn’t go home with the wrong guy. Suppressing your sexuality for so long affects your judgment and you don’t always make the best decisions once you have given yourself permission to acknowledge your true desires. It is hard to get the Genie back in the bottle once you have rubbed the lamp.
Being in the closet is a very lonely place to be and living as a “Friday night gay” is a horrible way to live. What I really longed for -back then- was a real connection but the shame I felt for being gay kept me from being with anyone for more than one night. I needed a Closet Monster to tell me that I was being stupid. I needed a Closet Monster to tell me that who I loved didn’t matter; all that mattered was that I loved.
Eventually, I couldn’t bear to live a lie anymore and late one night on the phone with a friend I decided to start living my life in truth. It took everything I had in me to say the words, but that night I told my friend that I was gay. Hearing the words come out of my mouth made it real and I realize now that I was coming out to myself as much as I was coming out to my friend.
After that night one by one I told my other friends, and one by one I began to build the support system I needed to live my life out and proud. Now most of my friends would probably tell you that I must be the inspiration for the central Closet Monster in my book, and though there are parts of me in there I confess to you now that he is an amalgamation of many people. The Closet Monster in my story is made up of all the friends that I told my secret to first; the ones that pushed me to be my true self and it is my sincerest hope that they are flattered when they recognize themselves in him. I just wish I had the courage to have told them all sooner, recognizing their unconditional love early on would have made everything so much easier.
I want you all to know that I created the Closet Monster for those of you that are alone and struggling with your sexuality. I remember sitting on a park bench, on my way home from seeing a gay-themed movie, one night and crying because I thought I would never come out like the characters I just saw on the screen. I remember what it is like to feel truly alone but I began a search that night for someone in my life that I could tell. My advice to you is to look for that one person in your life you can confide in, your Closet Monster, talking to that person will help clear the way to the life that you deserve.
Thank you to all of the real Closet Monsters in my life: Toni, Dave, Glen, Lisa, and Scottie. Without your support during those early years I would have never had the courage to become the man that I am today.
Vacation August 19th 2017
"Turn and Face the Strange"
August 13th 2017
I have been working on Justin Case and the Closet Monster for just under ten years. Ten years is a long time. Many times during the process I have thought about giving up. Though the book has brought me much joy it has also been challenging and at times extremely frustrating. I have shed many tears on the road to its completion and I predict will probably shed many more on the journey to seeing it published.
Just last weekend I had a small art opening at Pegasus on Church here in Toronto. The show will run until the end of August and showcases original work that I have created based on the characters in my graphic novel. When I made arrangements for the show I didn’t expect to be nervous about the opening, and though it was a very modest affair attended by friends, I have to admit to experiencing some opening night jitters. Something not new to me but something - in the past - I would have never admitted to.
You see, to the people that know me best I have never been considered a shy person or an introvert. My best friends in fact would probably tell you stories that depict me as an outrageous, sometimes inappropriate, attention-seeker, forever at home in the spotlight. Though I love those old stories and take pleasure in both hearing and retelling them, the truth of the matter is that I have been fulfilling that role less and less. People who meet me for the first time find it hard to believe that I was ever the outrageous extrovert my oldest friends describe, preferring instead to classify me as quiet, witty, and reserved.
Have I changed? Yes. To be honest, writing the book has changed me.
When I was writing and illustrating my graphic novel, most of my days were spent alone in silent contemplation with my work; my only companions being the imaginary characters in my book. Though I needed the time by myself to produce the work, that much time alone cannot help but make you more contemplative and insular. Socializing skills are a lot like muscles— if you don’t use them they become weak and ineffectual and, as a result of being alone so much, the ease in which I used to interact with people has become a bit compromised.
I used to feel that it was my responsibility to entertain people and make them laugh. But since working on the book I have become more of a listener and an observer of people. If you are going to write believable characters you need to be aware of how people interact. While writing the book, I also I found myself censoring my comments, choosing to keep my wittier remarks and jokes to myself so that I could use them later for the book. After ten years of repressing myself I began to believe that the outgoing person I once was maybe gone for good.
Humans are incredible creatures, though, forever adapting and changing. I thought I had seen the last of my extroverted self until I overcame my jitters and began interacting with my friends at my opening last weekend. With the book finished and new original work finally ready to be viewed, I had no reason to repress anything anymore, no reason to silently observe, and no book to save my wittier remarks for. Free to be my complete self once again, I began to remember how much I truly love the spotlight and with my passion project finally ready to be revealed I finally had something real to talk about, something people could see, touch and interact with. With my work on display, and my friends by my side I was like a person reborn.
I don’t regret the ten years I spent working on my graphic novel. Sure at times I felt as if I was losing myself in the work but I needed to be focused and connected in order to create something real and truthful. Nothing worthwhile is created without some sacrifice and if retreating into myself was the only way to create Justin Case and the Closet Monster I am proud I had the courage to do so. A courage I must add that was bolstered by my husband Stacy.
The time for introspection, however, is over and though I have been worried that I may not be up to the task of promoting my graphic novel and representing myself, after my opening last weekend I have rediscovered my latent ability to own the room. Thank you to all my friends that showed up to the opening, your presence allowed me to stretch a muscle that I haven’t used in a long time and with this new found confidence I promise to share my story with anyone who will listen.
August 6th 2017
About 8 years ago when I was in Sherbrooke, Quebec visiting Stacy’s family, I happened to come across some pink socks in the men’s department at a store called Simons. Overjoyed with my discovery I purchased the three remaining pairs so that I could take them home and add them to my wardrobe.
I love my pink socks. When I wear my pink socks I feel powerful. Men are not supposed to wear pink socks, but I don’t care. All my life I have been told that pink is not for men; that pink is effeminate and is only a suitable colour for women. But when I wear my pink socks I feel courageous, defiant and brave.
I have not always been brave. When the bullies in high school called me a “faggot” I just kept my head down and pretended that I didn’t hear them. I never once stood up to them or told anyone what was happening. Instead, I did my best to ignore them and tried in vain not to internalize all the hatred that was directed towards me. I wouldn’t have had the courage back then to wear pink socks but I am no longer that scared insecure teenager and when I wear my pink socks now I realize how far I have come.
I bought my three pairs of pink socks because I have always loved the colour pink. I wear them because they remind me of all the trials and tribulations I have gone through to become the out and proud gay man that I am today. They symbolize the life I fought so hard to achieve. A life without self-hate or denial; a life where I am out to all of my friends, family and colleagues; a life that I share with a man I have been with for 16 years; a life that my teenage self could have never imagined.
Though I am no longer that bullied, lonely adolescent I still carry him around inside me. Sometimes life has a way of bringing that insecure young man back to the surface and during those times I find myself unprepared or incapable to take on the world. On those days, however, I reach for my pink socks and all that they represent and rediscover the courage I need to live the life that I deserve.
The Hardest One to Tell
August 30th 2017
My wedding in August 2009 was the most wonderful day of my life. To have (almost) all the people that I love most in the world gathered to witness and celebrate my marriage to my husband, Stacy, was humbling and completely overwhelming. One of the things that I liked most about that day was hearing my friends and family honour my husband and me with their words. One of the surprise gifts of that momentous day was an unplanned speech that my sister, Cathy, gave for me. It was a surprise because my sister is not normally a public speaker and I know how difficult it must have been for her to stand up in front of everybody—a lot of whom she had just met—and recount a story about her baby brother. She did it though because she loves me and knew it would make me happy and, more importantly, I believe she did it because she wanted to give Stacy and me her blessing.
In Cathy’s speech she told a story about me when I was in kindergarten. As the story goes, my sister walked into my room one day to find me coveting something in the top drawer of my desk. Wanting to see what was so interesting, she peered over my shoulder to find that I had several brand new erasers, meticulously lined up as if for display purposes, hidden in my desk drawer. Knowing instantly what I had done, but wanting to hear my side of the story, Cathy asked me where I had gotten the erasers. Without a hint of remorse or guilt I told her that I had gotten the erasers from school. Seeing that I didn’t appear to understand what I had done wrong, Cathy let me know that I had stolen the erasers; that they were not mine, and that I would need to return them back to my school. With the realization that I was a thief, I was immediately afraid to tell my teacher. Wanting to spare me the humiliation, but still wanting me to take ownership for stealing, Cathy came up with a plan for me to return the erasers: everyday I was to return one of the erasers back at school and leave it in a different location within the classroom. If I did this until all of the erasers were returned Cathy, would not tell my parents about my behaviour. I, of course, followed my big sister’s instructions to the letter and returned all of the erasers that I had stolen. It wasn’t until years later that Cathy let me know that she had indeed told my mother and, confident that she had handled the situation adequately, had convinced my mother not to intervene.
As you can probably guess, that story brought the house down and was one of the favourites of many of our guests. Cathy’s story was funny and touching and gave people just a glimpse of the special relationship that I share with my sister. As her story illustrates, my sister has always been like a second mother to me. When things got tough with my eldest brother Ricky’s addiction to drugs and alcohol, Cathy made sure that I was not forgotten. When I was just a child and Ricky would come home late at night and argue violently with my parents, Cathy would take me into her bed so that I wouldn’t be afraid. In my early adolescence Cathy took it upon herself to teach me how to manage my newspaper route, and how to study for exams. When I was struggling to make friends at school, she noticed and as a result always made time for me. Though I didn’t have friends of my own, she always made sure that I saw the movies that I wanted to see, allowing me to tag along on countless dates with her then boyfriend (now husband) Mike so that I wouldn’t feel like I was alone. Back then, Cathy always made me feel like I was a priority and for a boy who –at school- was made to feel like he was different and somehow wrong, her affections were indeed a lifeline and I will always be grateful for how she took care of me.
Unfortunately, as a result of her constant caring I began to put my sister on a bit of a pedestal. Thinking that she could do no wrong, I idolized her and tried to emulate her in any way that I could. When I finally made friends of my own I strove to live up to my sister’s example. In the context of my family that was an admirable goal, but putting anyone on a pedestal is unwise and it did not leave me prepared for the very personal challenges that awaited me.
If you have been reading my blog from the beginning (and I really hope you have), you will know that I have inherited many admirable qualities from my parents and each of my three siblings. You will know how much I love each of them and that, as a family we have learned, grieved, and grown together immensely over the past 15 years. In fact, the whole point of my blog, and my book, is to honestly share the journey to here and now.
But part of that journey included great pain and suffering. But where my oldest brother’s pain and suffering was very loud and out in the open, mine was very quiet and hidden. I memorably came away from my family in my teens with the notion that being gay was very wrong. We were a large, working class, blue collar, Roman Catholic family in a matching city. Of course, no one in my immediate family was a hateful person, or a bully, and I am sure none of them ever acted on or was openly hostile to anyone gay. But they said homophobic things, made homophobic jokes and comments, and passed that belief on to me. As I looked up to her so much, it was my sister’s opinion that I most cared about, was most influenced by, and, because of that, internalized the homophobia without question.
Perceived as gay in high school, I had been bullied for almost my entire adolescent life. Once I had finally found some friends, I quickly decided to protect myself by letting people know how repugnant I thought gay people were. I am truly not proud of that time in my life. But being thought by others as gay had brought me nothing but sadness, and deflecting those accusations by feigning disgust seemed like the only viable option against revisiting that pain. It was the only way I knew how to survive. I am so sorry if in my misguided attempt to protect myself I passed that pain along to anyone else.
As the years passed, I watched my sister mature, go to college, get married and have two children. Before I went away to university, I was very involved with my sister’s life as well as the lives of her husband and children. I love them all very much.
After graduating from university and coming to terms with who I truly was, I had to forgive myself for the homophobic views I once held, and shared, and purge myself of years of self-hate in order to begin the long journey to true self-acceptance. Feet firmly planted on my new road, I wondered if my sister’s views about gay people had changed and I feared what her reaction might be to my news.
Out of all my family, I was the most afraid to tell my sister that I was gay. When you finally have the courage to come out, you remember all the hurtful things you and other people have said about gay people, and you allow those hurtful things to prevent you from sharing your truth. As a result, I was petrified that once Cathy knew I was gay she would reject me. I was scared to death she would perceive me as being different, be disappointed in me, and forget all the history that we shared together. Most importantly, I was the most afraid to tell her because I still greatly looked up to her and wanted her to love me.
Despite all of my fears though I still told my sister my truth. Surrounded by my other family members, she took in the news and, unlike everyone else, quietly ruminated over it. To be honest, I didn’t get the reaction that I wanted from my sister when I told her that I was gay. She was concerned that I was upset and did her best to reassure me that she would love me no matter what, that my news didn’t matter to her, but it appeared there was something behind her eyes and that didn’t sit well with me. Perhaps I was just expecting more from her than the other members of my family because of the special bond I believed that I shared with her. Whatever it was that she was feeling, though, she kept to herself. Knowing my sister the way that I did, I knew that accepting my news was going to be a struggle for her.
As time passed, things got easier between my family and me. My news was an adjustment for everybody but the more time they got to spend with Stacy and me together, the more they realized I was still the same person and because Stacy is such a great guy, the gender of my partner began to matter less and less.
Surely, disagreements and misunderstandings are what families are all about and, if we are honest with ourselves, it is discord that is quite often the primary way in which families grow. I have watched my sister grow and watched our bond become stronger because of our efforts. Much work had to be done but with most of the hard work behind us, I can say I once again see my sister, as my greatest supporter, my steadfast protector, trusted confidant and loyalist friend. She has truly opened her heart to Stacy and done everything she can to make him feel welcome and part of the family. In fact just last summer she called my home in order to schedule some time with just, her and us, on our annual August visit to Cornwall. I mention it because when she called and Stacy answered she didn’t ask for me but instead simply scheduled her plans with him.
So how does this story end? It ends, of course, where it began. With my sister proudly giving a speech on my wedding day. Sure, there were bumps in the road and I had to be patient but as it took me years to accept my sexuality and combat my own inner-homophobia, how could I not give my sister an equal amount of time to adjust? When I look at my sister now, and she looks back at me, I no longer see a struggle behind her eyes. She has changed, and she made that change because she loves me.
Fuzzy Yellow Housecoats, Teddy Bears and Monsters at the Door
July 23rd 2017
Stories. We like to tell stories in my family. We have favourites that we tell almost every time that we get together. It doesn’t matter to us that we have heard them all before. We simply rejoice in the ritual of telling them and, by doing so, we re-live old memories and strengthen the ties that bind us together.
While there are many stories that we like to drag out after Sunday dinners, by far the person featured most in our family stories is, unquestionably, my eldest-brother, Ricky. I have never met a man quite like him. The stories that we tell about him always leave us laughing. They are outrageous and unbelievable, endearing and unique. Though I have heard them countless times over the years, I never once tire of watching my family relive them. There is so much joy in the house when we remember Ricky’s many exploits and his capacity to make fun of himself is truly a remarkable gift that he bestows on us all.
One of my favourite stories involving my brother Ricky happened one evening when I was just a baby and my parents went out, leaving me and my two other siblings in his care. In charge for the evening, Ricky rejoiced in being able to order our brother Kevin and sister Cathy around. Things quickly changed, however, when I woke up crying. Tasked with settling me down and getting me back to sleep, Ricky picked me up out of my crib and tried to soothe me. As recalled by my siblings, I was inconsolable that night and, frustrated by this, Ricky had to come up with a plan to settle me down.
At the urging of my sister Cathy, Ricky put on my mother’s housecoat and slippers and doing his best Mom impression tried to convince me that he was her. Snuggling up next to my mother’s fuzzy yellow housecoat, the plan worked and I soon fell back to sleep. My tough brother Ricky, in my mother’s fuzzy yellow housecoat and slippers, however, was apparently quite the sight to see. Kevin and Cathy, seeing a crack in his armour, saw the truth beneath the tough guy façade and ‘til this day have never let him live it down. It is no secret that my brother is a big softy, and I think we love telling this story so much because it illustrates that point so clearly.
Though I don’t remember it, there is another story about my brother Ricky and I that I need to share with you. It is one, surprisingly, that isn’t told very often but it is the story about my brother that I hold most precious. When I was just a toddler, not yet able to walk, my brother spent all of his money on a large teddy bear that he planned to give to me for Christmas. Not wanting to spoil the surprise he hid this bear, which was as big as I was, in his room behind his dresser. One day, just before Christmas, my family lost track of me. Frantically, they searched the house calling my name but I was nowhere to be found. In the end, my brother Ricky found me behind his dresser curled up with the massive teddy bear that he had bought for me. The surprise spoiled, Ricky decided to give me the bear early since there seemed no way to separate me from it. I love this story because when my brother tells it you can still see in his eyes how proud he is that he got something for me that I loved instantly. Something that was bigger than me, bigger than him, as big in fact as the love for his family that he has always carried around with him.
Families, however, are not made up of only happy memories and funny stories. They are made up also of the memories we wish to forget and the stories that we do not jokingly recount after Sunday dinner. Remembering only the good times and omitting the bad does a disservice to my family and since these blogs are all about being honest, in the hopes of helping people deal with their own challenges, I feel that I should share some of the darker chapters of my family’s history.
If you have read my other blogs, you already know my brother Ricky struggled for a large portion of his life with drugs and alcohol addiction. He was a different person when he drank and used drugs; not the self-deprecating, fun-loving, soul that he is today. But he was instead an angry, selfish, sometimes violent person who absolutely terrified me.
Though I never talk about these memories with my family, I hope that they understand that including them is essential to understanding my relationship with my brother. Painful as it may be for them to read, my intention is not to pass judgment on these events, or my brother, but rather share with you an incident in my life that deeply affected me; a memory so vivid that I recall every moment of it as if it were yesterday.
The incident in question happened one night when I was still in elementary school. Home alone with my mother, I heard a knock at the side door. Going to answer it, I found my brother Ricky, standing on the other side covered in blood. When he saw me, he slammed a bloody hand on the door’s window and screamed at me to let him in. He had just cut himself on a beer bottle but I didn’t know that. To me, he looked and sounded like a monster and I ran to the living room and hid behind a chair.
As I tried in vain to feel safe in my hiding place, I heard my mother arguing with my brother, as he continued to violently throw himself against the door. Not gaining access to the house at the side door Ricky raced around to the front of the house to try and get in through the front entrance. I remember my mother running to the front to make sure that it was locked all the while yelling my name so that I would come to her. Gingerly exiting from my hiding place, I joined my mother at the front door, and she grabbed me by the hand. Luring my brother to the side door, by promising to let him in, we escaped the house from the front door and ran to the neighbors down the street. I have never been more terrified in my life.
After that incident, I spent most of my youth being afraid of Ricky. I was too young at the time to know that it was his addictions that were fueling his violent tendencies, so as a way of protecting myself I began to emotionally distance myself from him. He couldn’t hurt me if I pretended not to care.
During my early adolescence, when Ricky had finally sought help and was in rehabilitation, I spent a lot of time being angry with him. I felt that I had to keep his addictions a secret and, because of that, unfairly blamed him for my inability to make friends at school. I was also a little bit selfish and not entirely convinced that we should be standing by my brother after all that he had put us through. Looking back now, I am grateful that my parents were so devoted to their eldest-son; for it taught us all that you do not abandon family when things get tough. For my own sake, in high school I wrote a play about how living with my brother’s addictions had negatively affected me and used that play as a kind of talk therapy to finally lay all my anger to rest. Though I regret airing our family secrets so publically, I am gratefully that I was able to say all the things that I needed to say in order to heal and—most importantly— forgive my brother.
I realize now that Ricky is the heart of our family. We stood by him when he was in need because that is what families do. Ricky is far more than the comic relief we are so eager to cast him as, for he is the living representation of our strength as a family. There is no one else in my life that has changed his life so completely, given up so many vices, and stood stronger and better for having survived the struggle. I fear that he may not know how proud I am to be his brother and may think that I dwell on his past mistakes. But I look at those darker times as only the path that we had to take in order to get to this brighter future. The selfish teenager in me is gone and I realize that there is no one person responsible for the bad things that happened to me in my life.
So how do I feel about my eldest-brother today? Let me just say that when I finally had the courage to tell him that I was gay, he looked me in the eye and said, “I am sorry that I wasn’t the type of brother that you could tell this to.”
In one simple heartfelt sentence, Ricky said everything in that moment that I needed to hear. He acknowledged our past, which has not always been rosy, owned his mistakes by apologizing for not being there, and in the end became everything I have ever needed him to be by loving and accepting me for who I am. I am proud to say that in my adult life my brother Ricky has always been there for me, and though the dark days will always be with us, they are not what I choose to dwell on. Instead I choose to remember that my brother supported me when I had the courage to come out, he mourned with me when I lost our father, welcomed Stacy with open arms into our family when I got married, and when I was just a toddler bought me the biggest damn teddy bear that he could find.
Let me leave you with one last story. My brother was about to leave the reception hall on my wedding day. Just before he was out the door the D.J. began playing the ABBA song “Dancing Queen”. Without hesitation my brother rushed back into the hall, half-yelling “I love this song” and danced one last dance with Stacy and me before he left. I was overjoyed to see him with his guard down strutting his stuff to one of the gayest songs in the ABBA catalog. I love you big brother.
July 16th 2017
The number eleven will always remind me of my second-eldest brother, Kevin. In his youth Kevin was a phenomenal athlete. From the sidelines, as a young boy, I marveled as I watched him outshine his rivals. He was a fierce competitor and could hold his own; not only on the lacrosse and football fields but on the hockey rink as well.
It was on the hockey rink that Kevin earned the nickname “Jules” and wore the number eleven on his jersey. I spent many afternoons and evenings with my family watching number eleven zip around the rink. In those years, I thought Kevin could do anything and I only had to look at my father’s reactions during those games to have those thoughts confirmed. My father was extremely proud of Kevin, both on and off the rink, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have had such a remarkable role model.
Having a big brother who excelled at sports, however, was a bit of a curse for me. Though my parents wanted and expected me to take after my brother, I was an artsy kid right from the start and did not want to follow in my brother’s footsteps (or hockey skates). Oh sure, there were times that I wished I had my brother’s skills and I tried with all of my might to emulate him; but I learned very early on that my place was not on the rink or field but rather in my head, heart and hands. Looking back, I suppose that one of the reasons that I chose to be an artist was because I couldn’t compete with my brother in organized sports. I had the patience to sit for hours with a pencil and paper trying to interpret what I saw in my mind’s eye and that was a talent that my brother did not possess. I nurtured that talent because it was unique to our family and it set me apart from my brother. When I drew pictures, I wasn’t in his shadow anymore. Instead, I was judged and admired for something that could no longer be compared to him—something that was truly my own.
Abandoning sports, I built my identity around the arts and competed with myself in order to improve my skills. Though I was happy to have found something to call my own, I began to realize that sports are truly the vocabulary of young men (or, at least, that’s what we think young men should be interested in) and to not be versed in that language can lead to exclusion and isolation. Being different was okay in elementary school but I discovered during my transition from Grade Six to Grade Seven that if you wanted to be popular you needed to conform.
From Grade Seven to Grade Eleven I found myself on the fringe at school, unable to compete with the boys in gym class they began to treat me differently. Though I still found solace in the arts, my preoccupation with drawing further alienated me from the boys, who began to view my pursuits as effeminate. To protect myself I began to withdraw which, to my dismay, lead to the boys labeling me as a loner and eventually coming to the conclusion that I must be gay. Labeling me as a “faggot” they bullied me until I began to believe, like they did, that there was something wrong with me.
Filtering who I was through the eyes of the boys at school I felt worthless and defeated. On the outside, these boys shared much in common with my brother Kevin and, at the time, I thought if I shared with Kevin what was happening to me at school he might side with my persecutors. I thought that he, like them, couldn’t understand me because I was different from him and, for a long time, I distanced myself from my brother unfairly labeling him as one of those unfeeling jocks. The bullies had done their work well, and though I didn’t at that time identify as being gay, I was ashamed that people thought that I was. So ashamed in fact that I couldn’t share with my brother what was happening to me at school for fear that he might come to the same conclusion and, like the boys at school, reject me for it.
Sadly, It wasn’t until I left high school and went on to university that I realized how much of an ally my brother was to me. During one of my early visits home from the Ontario College of Art and Design, Kevin and his lovely partner Chrissy invited me to their house for dinner. That night we proceeded to drink many beers and over the course of the evening Kevin really opened up to me. We talked about how I had always followed my own path. We talked about how I had refused to work at Domtar, the paper mill my entire family worked at, and how glad he was that I was following my dream. To my surprise and delight he then told me that he had a drawer in his dresser where he had saved all of the programs from the plays that I had written and produced. Excusing himself he went to his bedroom and came back with a card that I once created for him for his birthday. I was overwhelmed. Kevin was not like the boys that bullied me at school. He was not afraid of me because I was different, and didn’t want or expect me to be anything like him. That night I saw something in his eyes that healed years of pain that I had endured on my own. He was proud of me and always had been.
As I made my way through university- and even long after I graduated- one of the highlights of my visits home was always a night out drinking with my brother. It became a way for us to connect, the alcohol stripping away all bravado and modesty allowing us the opportunity to tell each other how much we cared. When planning to come out to my family I had always imagined telling my brother Kevin and in that planning it always happened during one of these nights. If you have read my other blog posts, you know that my mother was the first person that I eventually told, but that was not planned. My intention from the very beginning was always to tell my brother Kevin first.
Telling my family that I’m gay was one of the scariest things that I have ever done. I was deeply afraid that they were going to reject me. That they were going to pull away from me and deny me their support and their love. Losing a friend over coming out—which I have—is one thing but losing a family member seemed unbearable to me. I guess that is why they were the last ones for me to tell. You see, you build up a support group by telling your friends first and then you just pray that you won’t need them when you finally have the courage to tell your family. Wanting to tell Kevin and Chrissy first was no accident. It was calculated because I knew in my heart that they would be okay with it.
My suspicions were right. One evening, after a few drinks and a lovely dinner I shared my secret with Kevin and Chrissy and they were completely supportive of me. I suspect that Chrissy may have had some idea that her brother-in-law was gay but my brother was taken completely by surprise. After a few more drinks, Kevin confided in me that my news was a little weird for him, and though he loved me, it would take a little getting used to. I felt honoured that he could be so honest with me and knew his reservations weren’t anything that I hadn’t struggled with myself.
In reality it didn’t take very long for my brother to get used to the “new” me. If it was a struggle, he never let me see it and he and Chrissy were by my side when I told the rest of my family that I was gay. When I took Stacy home for the first time they greeted him with open arms and never once made him feel like he was unwelcome and when we got married they stood proudly by our side.
All this, of course, is all well and good but the thing that attests most to my brother’s complete acceptance of me just happened last summer when he came to visit me and Stacy in Toronto. During that visit, Kevin came to party, and for the first time since I came out to him he let his guard down and got drunk with us. My brother cannot hide his true feelings when he is drunk and during his visit I got to see how much he has grown to care about my husband. Beer firmly in hand, I watched him chat and bond with Stacy the way we used to bond on our special nights out and delighted in the fact that Kevin now saw Stacy as just “one of the boys”. As I watched them fist-bump each other in my nephew, Jordan’s, back yard it was clear to me that Kevin had nothing left to get used to: he was all in.
As I wrote at the start, the number eleven will always remind me of my brother. It was the number on his hockey jersey and when I see it today I cannot help but think about the many characteristics he possesses that I aspire to. My brother is humble, confident, loyal and trustworthy, funny and strong and I would be a great man if I had half of his integrity. He acted as a wonderful caregiver to my ailing father, stood by me as I struggled to come out of the closet to the rest of my family and has always been a great support to my mother. As I write this it just occurred to me that the number eleven turned on its side can also be read as an equal sign, which is also very representative of my bond with my brother for he has always seen my relationship with my husband Stacy and my modest accomplishments as equal to his own.
Vacation June 30th 2017
June 25th 2017
I came to Calvin and Hobbes later in life; long after Bill Watterson was out of syndication. Once I had discovered the comic, however, I devoured all of the compilation books that were produced. In my opinion, Watterson captured the imagination and innocence of youth so perfectly that I have a hard time believing that Calvin and Hobbes are not actually real. Watterson’s comic strips make me remember being an imaginative child like Calvin and when I read them I am transported back to a time when being alone didn't necessarily mean that I had to be lonely.
Calvin and Hobbes at its core is about the relationship between a child and his stuffed tiger. To Calvin, Hobbes is real—as real as anyone else in his life. But as grown-ups we know the truth: Hobbes is really the representation of the self. Or, to make it clearer: Hobbes is Calvin. Hobbes doesn't necessarily think and feel exactly the same as Calvin does, but Calvin’s disagreements with Hobbes are his way of figuring out what he truly believes, thinks and feels.
When I was creating Justin Case and the Closet Monster, I wanted Justin to have the same type of relationship with a manifestation of his self, and so I created the closet monster. In many ways, Justin is an innocent, much the same way Calvin was in his comic, and the closet monster, much like Hobbes, pushes Justin to discover things about his world. Now, the closet monster is not perfect and does not know everything. But, like Hobbes, he is fearless and gets Justin to try things that Justin wouldn’t have the courage to try on his own. As a gay man who managed to navigate his way out of the closet, I remember those moments when I had to push myself in order to live the life that I wanted to. In many ways I had to become a different person in order to have the courage to come out to my family and friends, and it is that courageous person who is the main inspiration for the closet monster.
Although Justin Case and the Closet Monster is not a syndicated strip, as a nod to that beloved comic I have adopted the opening title banner that Watterson used in his weekend strips. One of the things that I love about Watterson’s weekend Calvin and Hobbes strips was the way that he changed the title banner from week to week to support the arc of the story. When I first created Justin Case and the Closet Monster I originally intended it to appear as a weekly strip in the back of a gay life style magazine. With the encouragement of my husband Stacy, I abandoned that idea and decided to develop the project into an actual full book. Because it was originally intended as a weekly strip, I had designed a title banner for each page. When I changed direction, it seemed like the obvious choice to discard the title banners and layout the book as a linear story. After much consideration, in the end, I decided to keep the title banners and, like Watterson, make them part of the story.
The banners, which are all doors, change depending on the characters that are featured on the page. Each character has a different door, because each character’s experience coming out of the closet is different. The banners also act as a breath or pause in the action and the changing doors signal that the point of view of the narrative is also about to change. Though originally designed to identify each individual strip for a magazine, the doors in the banners have come to represent much more and I believe add to the aesthetic and overall understanding of each character of the book. In other words, the doors in a more abstract way help to illustrate the personalities of each character because each door was designed in essence as an extension of that character. If it wasn’t for Watterson’s thoughtful use of the title banners in Calvin and Hobbes I never would have included mine in my book and I think as a result something unique and powerful would have been lost.
Thank you Mr. Watterson for sharing Calvin and Hobbes with the world. Your work changed my life and inspired me. If I hadn’t read about Calvin’s journey to grow-up in your amazing strip, I would have never been inspired to write about Justin’s journey out of the closet. It is my sincerest hope that my audience will see the truth in my story as much as your audience has felt it in yours.
June 18th 2017
One night when I was 7, my mother tucked me into bed and reminded me to say my prayers. Growing up Roman Catholic it was expected of me to say my prayers every night and, being the good boy that I was, I always said the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be to the Father. They were the ultimate trifecta of prayers and after I said them I was always confident that I had completed the holy transaction that I was obligated to perform. I suppose, in praying, I was looking for God to protect our family, our friends and our home, but I never asked him to do so nor do I even remember thinking it. I just knew it was my duty to pray to God every night so I did it without question.
That night, however, before I could queue up my holy playlist, my mom paused before she turned out the light and said something to me that would forever change my nightly interactions with God. I don’t know why she said what she said, if she could read my face and know that the prayers that her son recited were shallow and bereft of meaning, but she saw something in me that night that needed guidance and - like the loving mother she was - she did her best to provide it. “You know Mark,” she said, “you don’t just have to say the prayers that you have been taught. Sometimes it is okay to just talk to Him”. With a gentle smile she turned out the light and went downstairs.
That night I began to believe that I had a direct connection to God. I believed that, because my mom told me that I could just talk to Him, that he of course was always listening. That night, God became a friend of mine; someone that I could talk with at the end of each day, someone to bear witness to what was going on in my life, someone to confide in.
As I grew, this belief that God was always with me and always listening became a great comfort to me. At the end of each day, I would simply check-in with Him and review the events of the day. I would rejoice with Him when the things in my life were going well and seek consolation from Him when things were tough. To many this practice may just seem like I was being mindful, but to the faithful like myself, it is definitely a link to the Devine. However you classify it, this belief that God was by my side meant that I never felt like I was completely alone and, for a boy who spent most of his early adolescence isolated and by himself, this connection was a lifeline.
Making the transition from elementary school to middle school was a very difficult one for me. For some reason during that transition, my best friend decided that he would prefer to hang out with other people and no longer wanted to be my friend. He never actually said those words to me but his actions communicated that message quite clearly as he began ignoring me in the schoolyard. Embarrassed, ashamed and heartbroken I tried to make new friends but no one seemed willing to make any room for me. To make matters worse, at some point labeling me as a loner, the boys at school decided that I must be gay and began to ruthlessly bully me. Once the bullying started my fragile self-esteem shattered and I began to feel truly hopeless. Internalizing everything that was happening to me, I started to question why people didn’t want to be around me and came to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with me. With this mind-set firmly entrenched I soon became withdrawn, quiet and shy and unfortunately remained that way through middle school all the way to Grade 11.
Alone and sad, I took my troubles to God. Not wanting to add to my mother’s burdens, for she was dealing with my eldest brother’s drug and alcohol addiction, I kept what was happening to me at school to myself. Instead of confiding in my family, I prayed every night that God would help me find a friend. Failing that, I prayed for the strength to carry on. Though I cried myself to sleep many nights alone in my room, I never once felt like I was shouldering the burden by myself. Talking things out with God at the end of each day had made my isolation bearable and I believe with all of my heart that I would not have been able to endure it had it not been for Him. In the end, despite all of my struggles, I got what I so desperately wanted.
Now, God didn’t miraculously make a friend appear but instead gave me the strength to be vulnerable with people and the empathy to build real and lasting friendships with those who would always have my back. I am proud to say that I still hold a number of the friends I made in high school very dear to me. Of course it would have been far healthier for me to seek help outside of my relationship with God but circumstance in my life, at the time, kept me from sharing my feeling with anyone else and because of that I will always be grateful for my close connection to God.
When I think about my younger self it takes everything that I can muster not to openly weep for him. Being lonely I think must be the most horrible feeling in the world. And though, later in life, I tried very hard to surround myself with people it was, nevertheless, a feeling that I would revisit when I was struggling with my sexuality. Living in the closet is a very lonely place to be and again I was so blessed to have had the lifeline that was my relationship with God. Without Him, I never would have been able to navigate my way through my isolation and had the courage to share my truth with those that I love.
After coming out of the closet, I learned to share my feelings with the ones that I love and, because I have surrounded myself with people that I trust, I no longer feel the need to bottle things up inside. I am not embarrassed or ashamed now when someone hurts me and I no longer feel that I deserve to be mistreated because of a misguided sense that there is something wrong with me. With a healthy self-esteem, my relationship with God has also grown and is not as dependent as it once was. That said, I still check in with Him daily, unpacking my day every night before I go to sleep, rejoicing in the triumphs, seeking consolation for the defeats, and looking for guidance as I continue to make my own path in this world.
My faith, as you can tell, is very important to me. And though my belief in the Roman Catholic Church has wavered since coming out, my faith in God has never once faltered. I know Him. I have spent hours in contemplation with Him and, unlike the Holy Church, God doesn’t have a problem with me because I’m gay. He has walked with me as I denied who I was. He has held my hand as I struggled to come out, and He has embraced me when I was brave enough to tell the world who I truly am. I have no secrets from Him. He sees everything that I do. God loves me and He sees nothing sinful in my relationship with my husband, for He brought Stacy to me just when I was ready to receive his love and partnership. I know in my heart that He was by my side when we got married in a lovely chapel with my family and friends bearing witness.
I believe nine years ago God called me to write a book about what it feels like to be gay and living in the closet and, with the unending support of my husband, I believe that I was able to answer that call. I know all to well the loneliness associated with living one’s life in the closet and I feel it is my responsibility to - because I have made the journey to the other side – share my experiences and my story with those who are as isolated as I was. Though I would never claim to speak for God, He certainly has been part of my process right from the start and it is my sincere hope that I not only reach a gay audience and the families and friends of gay people, but also the faithful who I pray will see God’s hand in my work and begin to change their mind about how they feel about LGBTQ people.
Not Just Another Day at the Beach.
June 11th 2017
When Stacy, my husband, and I first began seeing each other in 2001, we lived in different cities. Stacy lived in Kingston and worked at Queen’s University and I lived in Toronto pursuing my freelance illustration career while working part time at OCAD University. Those first few months together were magical. Though it was long distance—a three-hour drive— we had a very meaningful and deep connection right from the start. Seeing each other every second weekend meant that our time together was limited but because of that it was also very special. I remember being very mindful of my visits with Stacy, carefully logging every watershed moment of our relationship in my memory. I had been alone for so long that I was determined to be acutely aware of every special moment that Stacy and I shared together and my memory library of that time is very vast indeed.
Like everyone does in a special relationship I, of course, remember our first kiss. It was sweet and passionate and I remember feeling a rush of adrenaline when I felt his stubble brush against my lips— an unfamiliar sensation for sure but one that I found that I thoroughly enjoyed. We kissed in front of the bookcase in his living room after having talked an entire night away. Etched in vivid detail alongside that memory are other moments that were equally important to me. Even now, I get teary-eyed thinking about the first time I fell asleep with him holding me, or remember the night that we came home late from a smoky party and he tenderly washed my hair. I guess that I took such care remembering those moments because even way back in the beginning I knew that I had found someone very special.
Now, watershed moments come in two varieties. There are the ones that you remember because they fill your heart with joy and change you for the better and then, unfortunately, there are the ones that you wish you could forget. Though I have many positive memories from the beginning of my relationship with Stacy, there is one negative thing that happened to us during that time that irrevocably changed the way that we both look at the world.
As I said, in those first few months Stacy and I were ridiculously happy. We cherished every moment that we spent together and were so gratefully that the universe had brought us both together. On one gorgeous summer day when I was in Kingston visiting Stacy for the weekend, we were invited by some of Stacy’s work colleagues to a public beach on a lake north of Kingston. Packing our towels and sunscreen we jumped at the opportunity to take advantage of such a beautiful day. Arriving at the beach, we found a sprinkling of people already there enjoying the sunshine. Surveying our surroundings we quickly found a spot - between a family playing frisbee and a young straight couple making out - and laying our towels down we claimed it as our own. Our day was spent joking and laughing with each other as we alternated from swimming in the lake to sunning ourselves on the beach.
Midway through the day, after taking a dip in the lake, I returned to my place on the towels by Stacy’s side. Grabbing a book that one of Stacy’s colleagues had brought, I leaned against him and absent-mindedly began leafing through the book. After a while, a shadow appeared and I looked up to see the man who had been playing frisbee with his children. I innocently thought he was perhaps going to ask us for the time, or something like that. Instead, in a self-assured voice he looked us both in the eye and said “Hey guys, this is a family place.”
Taken by surprise, I blankly starred at the man trying to grasp what he was saying. There was disapproval in his voice and anger behind his eyes. Once my initial shock subsided, I realized that the man before us was having a problem with me sitting so close to Stacy. Having watched us interact with each other all day, he probably realized that we were gay and felt it was his right to let us know that our public displays of affection—which consisted of me simply leaning against Stacy—were not at all welcome. Standing his ground a few feet from our faces, I could tell that the man was awaiting our response. After what seemed like an eternity I tried in vain to find the words that would put this man in his place. The words never came.
It was Stacy, instead, who broke the silence that afternoon. With a courage that I could not muster, but will always respect, Stacy stared up at the man trying to intimidate us and simply said “We are a family, sir”. I don’t know how he found the courage in that moment to stand up for us. How he had the presence of mind to come up with such a perfect response—one that did not escalate the situation and make it worse but instead just shut it down—I will always be proud of him for so expertly holding his own.
Seeing that he could not intimidate us so easily, the man backed down and made his way back to his family, who were all watching the scene unfold. As he walked away, as a parting jab, he told us that we were “a fucking sick family” and though those words were spoken to the sand and not directly to us they still unfortunately found their mark.
Though Stacy clearly won the argument we were still severely shaken by the confrontation and gathering our friends out of the water, we quickly told them what had happened. Outraged by what had transpired our friends insisted that we just ignore the man and his family and continue enjoying our day. Wanting to show the man that he hadn’t gotten to us, Stacy and I agreed to stay and tried our very best to put the incident behind us. After about 10 minutes, however, the full weight of the man's words began to overpower us and the feeling that we were no longer welcome on the beach became too much for us to bear. Asking our friends to leave we cut our day short and got them to take us home.
On the car ride home we went over the incident in detail with our friends. We were angry. We couldn’t understand why we had been targeted and why just leaning up against each other had upset this man so much. When he spoke to us it was clear that he believed that what we were doing was in someway “damaging” his children. From what we could tell, it didn’t even look like the children were aware of us at all until he confronted us. They had been having a blast, like any kids would, enjoying a fun day on the beach. But hate is learned. As far as we were concerned, his actions were teaching his children to hate us; that it was ok to confront others with your bigotry; surely his actions were far more damaging to his children than our subtle displays of affection could ever be.
But what was most upsetting and maddening was the hypocrisy. Stacy pointed out that just a few feet away from us, a mostly unclothed teenage boy and girl had literally been kissing and groping each other for most of the afternoon. But the man did not call them into question for being inappropriate. Clearly, their very sexualized behaviour was fine by him since they were a straight couple. But, for some reason, us leaning against one another and reading on a towel threatened the family beach. Being a gay couple was wrong. Our anger soon turned to despair.
When we arrived at Stacy’s apartment and said good-bye to our friends our emotions finally got the best of us. I remember standing in Stacy’s kitchen, that sunny afternoon, crying in each other’s arms. We cried that day because for a split second both of us wondered if we had done something wrong; denying that we had a right to be openly affectionate with one another. We cried that day because we both knew that that incident could have easily become violent, and the thought of either of us getting hurt chilled us to the bone. But most of all we cried that day because we became aware that there are people in this world who are going to hate us just because we love each other.
I wish I could say that we put that incident behind us and that it doesn’t affect how we relate to one another in public, but the truth is that incident deeply scarred us. I don’t ever want to be subjected and targeted by someone else’s hate again and I certainly do not want to subject my husband Stacy to it. We are always careful now when we are out in public. We do not hold hands and we do not kiss in public—something that most straight couples likely take for granted and never even think about.
To some people, the simple act of holding the hand of my legally wed husband is “flaunting” my sexuality. Though I certainly don’t believe that, I never want to put Stacy in potential danger because I know that there are people out there that would attack us verbally or physically (or both). Of course such things should be equal but they’re not. The reality is that I live in a world where it’s okay for a man to hold a woman’s hand but it is unacceptable for me to hold the hand of the man that I love.
I wish that I didn’t feel this way. I wish I had the courage of the many young gay men and women that I see out there holding hands together. But the truth is that I am afraid. We both are. Though I am a proud gay man there are some things that I am not willing to risk and the safety of my husband and me is far more important to me than being able to hold his hand in public.
Now I know you are probably thinking that we have let the homophobes win, that they have taken something away from us and in a way that is true. But to leave things on a hopeful note let me just tell you that though we are very cautious in public, every once and a while we throw that caution to the wind. We are not adverse to stealing a moment once and a while, like the time, two years ago on a secluded street in Venice, I stole a kiss from my beloved. We might not have been comfortable holding hands through the streets of Venice, which was a shame, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t going to kiss my husband in one of the most romantic cities in the world; yet another watershed moment made all the more precious because of its rarity and the courage it took just to carry it out.
Marlon and Me
June 4th 2017
In 2008, I graduated with my bachelor of education degree from Queen’s University. I was enrolled in a unique program called Artist in Community Education (ACE) specifically designed for practicing artists in visual art, music, drama and creative writing. In order to graduate from ACE, I had to complete not only the typically required practicum—a real-world, experiential learning placement— for any B.Ed. degree but also an alternative practicum that was community-based and outside of a regular classroom.
To meet this requirement, I chose to work with an inspiring woman named Marney McDiarmid, an amazing ceramicist and passionate LGBT activist and champion. At the time, Marney was working at Kingston’s HIV Aids Regional Services (HARS). Because I had been a contributing illustrator for a number of U.S. gay lifestyle magazines prior to teaching, Marney thought it might be fun for me to begin my practicum by doing a presentation of my work to an LGBTQ youth group in Belleville that she helped facilitate.
So, for this presentation I decided to concentrate on the editorial illustrations—works that accompany text to visually interpret the key themes of an article— that I had created for Instinct and Genre magazines, gay greeting card company 10%, various personal pieces from my portfolio, as well as work created for self-promotional purposes.
I have always been particularly proud of the work that I created for the gay community via these magazines. I think it is important for gay people to tell their stories and I have always felt honoured to help tell stories that celebrate the gay experience.
One of the first professional contracts that I ever did was for the gay lifestyle magazine called Instinct. At the time that I did the contract, I was deeply closeted and— to be completely honest— not entirely sure that I would ever have the courage to come out. That contract, however, helped me test the waters with my friends. Showing them the work, I was able to keep up the pretense that I was straight; insisting that I had only taken the contract for financial reasons, but all the while watching their reactions and looking for any signs of disapproval. To my relief, no one questioned my intentions or even gave me a hint of disapproval, which went a long way to helping me begin to accept myself. Looking back now, despite the fact that those first images were rough they were probably the most real, honest and grounded work that I have ever created, and though they were meant to illustrate someone else’s story they probably served a much greater purpose fleshing out my own.
Needless to say, I am very connected to the gay images in my portfolio and I was overjoyed to have the opportunity to curate my work and share it with the LGBTQ youth in Marney’s group. One of the things that I pride myself on as an illustrator is being inclusive, and throughout my career I have striven to show diversity in my work as much as possible. So, when putting together the PowerPoint for this presentation I was careful to include works that represented individuals from various ethnic backgrounds. Confident in what I had to show for my talk, I believe I was relaxed, well spoken, and engaged.
After the talk was finished I opened the floor up to questions. During the question period I answered questions about my process, where my ideas come from, how I insert my personality into each contract, and how much I get paid. Just before I was ready to wrap up, a young man in the back of the hall put his hand up to ask me a question. “Why is it”, he began with a slight tremble in his voice, “that I don’t see myself represented in any of your images?”
Taking a moment, I quickly took stock of the young man before me. As my father would say, he was “a big boy”. I have to admit that I hadn’t seen him at first, as he had been tucked way in the back of the hall. In that pause, I realized his question didn’t come from a place of anger nor was it accusatory in nature. He was just frustrated and earnestly wanted to know why his body type had not been included in any of my work.
I wish I could say I had a good answer for him but his question stumped me. I had been so sure that I had been as inclusive as possible, but illustrative diversity should mean more than just representing different ethnicities or sexual orientations, It should also be, as this young man was rightly pointing out, inclusive of multiple body types.
Schooled by this young man, I am not proud to say I hid behind the excuse that my art directors insisted on me portraying gay men in a certain way and that they were not open to me offering varied body types. Although this was true, the whole truth was that not only had I bought into the unhealthy and deeply pervasive gay body stereotype that you have to be white, thin, with a hairless torso and six-pack abs to be desirable, but that I was also one of the people perpetuating this body image standard through my work. Graciously accepting my defensive answer, however, the young man let me off the hook. But I was shaken by his question and I quickly wrapped up my presentation.
Looking back on that moment, the educator in me wishes I had talked about why I felt compelled to only represent certain body types in my work and why gay magazines only published those types of images. But I guess I was just embarrassed that I hadn’t put myself in his place before and I didn’t want to admit to being so ignorant. The truth is, at that time, the gym-bunny physiques heavily promoted by Calvin Klein – and today by 2(X)IST — were the only types of images I wanted to see because I had been acclimatized to believe that they were my only options. I may not have been that perfect body type but as a gay man those were the images that I was supposed to aspire to. The young man’s body type, sadly, was just not an option and because of that way of thinking I began to ignore that it even existed. It’s hard for me to believe that I was ever that shallow but looking back on that time in my life I have no choice but to admit that I was.
I wish I would have gotten that young man’s name, or at least thanked him for opening my eyes that night, but I suppose at the time I had no idea how much his words were going to continue to affect me. Because of him, I took a hard look at my graphic novel and realized that I was not being as inclusive as I thought.
Though there are some characters that conform to standard gay body stereotypes, I decided to create meaningful characters that clearly do not. To honour this young man, I crafted the closet monster Marlon—a polar bear with tiny bat wings—and Corey Anders—a portly, young Black man trying to find a place for himself in the gay community. Both characters exist outside of the norm in mainstream gay culture and their journey to finally accept themselves and find a place within gay community is, I believe, one of the most touching moments in the book. In the end, Marlon introduces Corey to the "bear” (husky, large, gay men with lots of body hair) community where their size is not discriminated against but accepted and cherished. I have learned a lot from the "bear" community about self-acceptance and I am proud to have them represented in my book.
On a more personal note, as I get older I have found I continue to feel the pressure to live up to that unhealthy gay body stereotype that hung over me in my 20s. Now don’t misunderstand me- there is nothing wrong with having something to aspire to as long you don’t beat yourself up for not measuring up to a standard that few can achieve and maintain.
As for myself, I am 46 years old, and I do not have the “perfect” body. I do not have a six-pack or enviable arms and I certainly do not have a hairless chest and back. What I do have, however, is a husband that loves me for what I am. I am a real man who is sexy despite not being the over-manicured gay Adonis we so often see portrayed in the media (both gay and straight) and I hope I am the type of husband who does not by words, actions or attitude impose those unrealistic expectations on my spouse.
With all that said, though, I still struggle with having a healthy body image and at times wish I looked like the men with the hairless chests and perfect abs that I see on the cover of magazines and in the movies and TV shows. Luckily for me, I no longer see that body type as my only option, and though there are some that ignore that I exist, thankfully I am surrounded by people who love me for who I am and not merely what I look like.
May 28th 2017
When I was a young boy, I was best friends with a girl named Tracy who lived down the street from my house. Though she was a year older than I was, Tracy and I did everything together. We rode bikes, played games, had sleepovers and basically lived at each other houses. I was so comfortable with Tracy’s family that I called her mom “Aunt” and would let myself into their house without knocking.
Tracy’s family— to my delight—had a pool and, by far, my most favourite thing to do with Tracy was to go swimming. I remember quite clearly making whirlpools in that pool, diving for quarters and laying bare skin on black pavement in order to warm up. Back then, people affectionately referred to Tracy as a “Tom Boy”. She was sports-minded, wore jeans (never dresses) and kept her hair fairly short. When we swam we swan in cut off jeans—no fancy bathing suits for us—and as far as I was concerned we were the same in every way.
In those carefree days I had no idea what gender was. I knew, of course, that Tracy was a girl but I had no idea that we did not share the same anatomy. Sure, Tracy was labeled a “Tom Boy”, but I didn’t care about that. Like Tracy, I also didn’t conform to my expected gender role, preferring to draw pictures instead of playing sports. Looking back on that time I cannot help but miss the freedom of those days. Tracy and I were free to be who we were; not judged by each other but instead left to define ourselves in the way that we chose.
Things changed for me around the time that I reached the third grade. Tracy was a year ahead me and, though we still saw each other after school, it wasn’t long until our friendship began to break apart. We both began to make new friends in our own grade, and eventually began hanging out with each other less and less.
At grade school I was confident and well liked. I socialized with both girls and boys equally, skipping and playing hopscotch with the girls one-day, then rough-housing and playing marbles with the boys the next. At around Grade 5, however, things abruptly changed when the word “sissy“ was introduced into our vocabulary. For some reason that I could not explain, it was no longer acceptable for me to skip and play hopscotch with the girls. Though I don’t remember being bullied, specifically, I do remember conforming to the new unspoken rule of the playground and because of it soon began socializing almost exclusively with the boys. It was clear to me at the time that I had to make a choice in order to fit in even though that choice made absolutely no sense to me.
Coming to terms with the new normal I changed my behaviour and began to embrace playground sports in order to fit in with the boys. As my father had tried to teach me, sports were the language of boys, and though I still would have rather just drawn pictures I knew if I wanted to fit in I would have to fake an interest. I have to admit that playing informally on the playground was much more fun than organized sports, and though I wasn’t very good at them I did enjoy the feeling of being one of the boys.
Conforming to the strong gender expectations, I soon became inseparable with two boys from my grade. We did the things that boys were supposed to do. We played sports, went to see movies, camped in each other’s backyards and even went on vacations with each other families.
One day all three of us went to my buddy’s cottage with his family for the weekend. We were all at the age where we were discovering our bodies and were curious about how they worked. At my friend’s urging we decided to go skinny dipping one afternoon. At that point in my life I had never seen anyone else’s naked body before but my own, and I was delighted to be able to contrast and compare what I was seeing. Swimming naked in the water was invigorating and freeing and led to us inventing other games, for that weekend, where we could continue to be naked in front of one another. These secret games were exciting, and though we instinctually knew that our parents would not condone of them we were helpless to resist.
Now you have to understand that these games were not sexual in nature. We were all innocents and had not reached a point where we even fully understood what sex was. In our way, I suppose, we were trying to open up to each other and know each other in the most profound way that we could. We had no secrets when we were naked in front of each other, and knowing that we were the same under our clothing connected us in a way that we had not been connected with each other before. Many people automatically connect nudity with sex but we were too young to make those connections. In those moments at the cottage being naked with each other was not dirty, was not something to be ashamed of or self-conscious about. It was just natural and something to be embraced. For the first time I was truly one of the boys and I loved every minute of it
Unfortunately for us we did not leave the cottage that weekend feeling empowered about our bodies. Instead we left trapped in many ways, thinking the way we perceived our parents wanted us to think. One of the games we had invented for ourselves was a naked race that we held in the backyard after dark. Under the cover of night, behind the cottage, shucking our pants to our ankles we would race to a preset finish line. Granted, it was not exactly the most dignified game for our naked Olympics but what did you expect –we were only 10. To our surprise, however, midway through the race my buddy’s mother tuned on the back porch light of the cottage presumably illuminating us for all to see. Hitting the dirt as soon as the light went on we hiked up our pants and lay motionless until the light was turned off.
Defeated and petrified that we were going to get in trouble we sat by the campfire in the front yard and waited for one of my buddy’s parents to come out and talk with us. As we sat and awaited our fate we decided that what we had been doing had been wrong. The freedom that we had experienced went away replaced by shame, and we professed to each other that we wished we had never begun playing such games.
My buddy’s parents never did come out and talk with us that night. Perhaps we had been too quick hitting the dirt when the lights came on or perhaps they had seen it all but decided not to say anything chalking it up to boys being boys.
That night us boys made a pact that we would never tell anybody about what we had done that weekend. A pattern I would go on to repeat later in life when I was in the closet. I wish I could have been there to tell my younger self that I had nothing to be ashamed of but unfortunately it took me years before I could remember those day with fondness and understanding. Of course, I know now that we did nothing wrong, which is why I decided to break the pact and share the story. Our entrenched Roman Catholic guilt back then had gotten the best of all of us.
I suppose it does no good to long for the innocence of childhood but I cannot help but wonder what my life would have been like if I had continued to perceive my gender and my body the way I did when I was a child.
When I first came out of the closet, it was very important to me that people saw me as masculine. Being seen as being feminine was distasteful to me and I turned my nose up at those gay men in the community that strongly embraced their more so-called feminine side. I understand now that I had internalized the pervasive and destructive homophobia all around me and was trying to distance myself from being seen as what most people think a gay person looks, acts, and sounds like.
Since coming out, I have matured and realized, like my childhood self, that the labels of “masculine” and “feminine” are inadequate and outdated terms used unfairly to judge one other. Personality traits, likes and dislike, should not inherently be masculine or feminine; they should just be a part of that person and devoid of any gender association. I knew that instinctively as a child but fighting my societal conditioning, find that I must continue to remind my less enlightened adult self.
As for my body, I miss the boy who could shamelessly disrobe in front of his two friends. I had no judgment then, no expectations, no images in the media of the ideal man (both gay and straight) to live up to. All I had was anticipation and the longing to be just one of the boys. I don't think that I have ever had a healthier body image then I did back when I was 10 and I hate the fact that that feeling of empowerment was so short lived.
Through struggle, through pain, and through much joy, though, I have found my place in this world. I am not a “sissy” or a “faggot”. I am not too fat or too hairy. I am loved for who I am. I am learning to love myself. I am comfortable hanging out and being considered one of the boys but at times am equally as comfortable hanging out and being thought of as “one of the girls” and though I cannot reclaim my childhood innocence I have made a promise to myself to honour the lessons I learned while losing it.
What About Me?
May 21st 2017
In my senior year of high school I wrote and starred in a play called, What about me? I wrote the play as a way of dealing with my feelings about my home life. It recounted the story of my oldest brother Ricky and his addiction to drugs and alcohol. At the time I had a lot of anger about how his addictions had affected me. Looking back on the play now, I realize that it wasn’t really so much about my brother but rather about my relationship with my mother.
In the play, Marcus—the character that I played—feels neglected by his mother. A mother who is doing her best to keep her family together and survive the addiction suffered by Marcus’ older brother Jaret. The play dealt with the feelings that I had never resolved about a difficult time in my life; feelings that I should have resolved privately with my family, but instead resolved publically on stage for everyone to see.
The play was a very selfish thing to do. Though I denied that the play was autobiographical, the local community knew that it was really about the secret life of my family. I had no right to air my grievances and express my anger in public the way that I did, and I cringe now thinking about my mother in the audience watching me do so. My performance was raw and the mother in the play took the brunt of all my anger. My mother listened as I unloaded on stage years of resentment about being put second. She listened as I scolded her fictional counterpart for not trusting me because she couldn’t trust my brother, and she did it all without being given the chance to respond to any of my accusations. All that she could do was sit in the audience, in silence, and know that those lines were spoken to her.
My mother had every right to be angry with me that night. She had every right to be embarrassed and hurt by what I had done. But she wasn’t. That night, my mother was the first person on her feet when the cast came out for its curtain call. That night we got a standing ovation, hundreds of eyes looking directly at me, but the only eyes that I saw were the teary, pride-filled eyes of my mother.
After celebrating the play’s debut with the cast and crew, the next day I sat quietly and talked to my mother about why I had created the play. We said things that had remained bottled up for years, and finally put the past behind us. She never once talked about the hurt feelings and embarrassment she must have felt watching the play. Instead, she focused completely on the pain that her son was so desperately trying to express. Our relationship changed for the better that day, not because of the play but because of the message that she had chosen to take away from it. Her son was hurting and he needed to know she loved him. She put my feelings selflessly above her own, which is what she had always done with my brother; and being on the receiving end of such a generous act I realized that I could no longer judge her.
That ability to put her children’s feelings above her own is what gave me the courage - in my late 20s- to come out to my mother and it is probably the main reason that, among my family, she is the one that I told first.
Now, to be completely honest with you, my mother was not actually the person that I had intended to confide in first when I journeyed back to my hometown one weekend. That was supposed to be my big brother Kevin and his lovely partner Christine. My mother, however, has this knack for knowing when something is bothering her kids and because of this suspected that I had something I needed to share. Letting me know that I could share anything with her, my mother opened the door when I arrived and encouraged me to unburden myself. Thinking that she might have somehow guessed what I needed to tell her, I took a deep breath and I told her that I was gay.
The words were barely out of my mouth when I realized she had no idea that that was my secret. Composing herself, she asked me if I was sure and when I assured that I was, she took her own deep breath and stared back at her youngest boy. Wanting to fill the silence, I told her that I was in love and that I had finally found someone that I could spend my life with. I then told her all about Stacy and reminded her that until that point I had never really had anyone in my life. With tears in my eyes, I told her that I wasn’t strong enough to live my life alone and then, under the weight of that statement, proceeded to break down. Isn’t it sad that for the better part of my life I thought that living my life alone was truly my only option?
After I told her my secret, it was clear to me that my mom needed some time to process everything that I had told her. She didn’t tell me that she was disappointed in me and I didn’t get the feeling that she was. It was just obvious that she needed some time to come to terms with this new reality. In that moment I never questioned that she loved me. I knew that she did, but I also knew she was worried about this new path that I was on. Like she had done all of her life, though, she put her child’s feelings before her own and never voiced her concerns or misgivings.
After our conversation, she went into the kitchen to do some dishes and clean the counter. At this point, always ready to break the tension with an inappropriate joke, I quipped that at least I had not presented her with half-naked pictures of Stacy and I together. Laughing, she agreed that she wasn’t ready to think of me being with another man. But through that laugh I could tell that she was already doing the work to accept me. Curious about what she thought my secret had been, I asked her what she thought I was going to tell her. To my surprise, she revealed that she thought I might have gotten my best friend pregnant. I guess I had covered up my secret better than I thought!
During that visit, after I told my mother, I went on to tell Kevin and Christine. Not ready to divulge my secret to anyone else, though, they kept my secret for a year, never breaking my confidence to the rest of the family. Telling Kevin and Christine and indeed the rest of my family are separate stories and I promise to share them in another entry. For now I want to continue concentrating on my mother.
I wish I could tell you that we resolved everything during that visit, that we had a tearful hug and my mom told me that she would love me no matter what. Life rarely gives you those types of Oprah moments though, and our parting after that visit was not something Oprah would have aired on her talk show. As I said, mom needed some time to process it all and I left that day afraid it might all be too much for her.
Thankfully, my fears were unwarranted. Given the time to process my news my mother has become my greatest supporter. She has welcomed Stacy into the family and truly made him feel at home. She allowed him to be in the receiving line—beside me—at my father’s funeral; and she walked me down the aisle on my wedding day. Like the mother in my play she has spent her life doing everything in her power to keep her family together; be it by helping her eldest son with a drug problem, care-giving for her sick husband, or walking beside her youngest boy on his journey to self-acceptance.
Everything I know about finding strength in adversity I have learned from my mother, and I am a better person because she loves me. We have learned together that there should be no secrets between those that you love and that to live in truth, though hard sometimes, is the only way to be truly happy. I will always be grateful that God saw fit to entrust my life to her, for because of her I know what it feels like to be loved unconditionally. I only hope that I can live up to her example.
How to get to Rochester from Toronto.
May 14th 2017
My mom has a huge family—a huge church-going Roman Catholic family. My maternal grandmother had 7 daughters and 4 sons. After I came out to my immediate family I let my mother handle the arduous task of passing on my news to her brothers and sisters. To this day I don’t know how she broke it to them, or what exactly she said, but I imagine that news was difficult for her to share, and I will be forever grateful that she shared it on my behalf.
In those early years of my coming out journey I was living in Toronto and visited home only a couple times a year. One long weekend, shortly after outing myself to my family, I went home for a visit. My mother, eager to have me home, picked me up at the train station and let me know that we were going to my Aunt Gail and Uncle Gary’s house for dinner. My Aunt Ruthie and Uncle Gerry were visiting from Rochester and they, and my grandmother, were all at my Aunt Gail’s house awaiting our arrival.
Now let me just say that I love my extended family. Whenever I get together with them I have a lot of fun. They are noisy, outrageous, and my encounters with them are always filled with love. That said, however, I was still quite nervous to interact with them after spilling the news about my sexuality. Driving to my Aunt’s Gail’s house I wondered if mom had shared my news with my visiting Rochester relatives, and what exactly their reaction had been.
When we arrived at my Aunt Gail’s house the family greeted us at the end of the driveway with hugs and warm feelings. I was relieved that no one seemed uncomfortable with my new “status”. In fact everything seemed normal and I soon took my ease as my Uncle Gary placed a cold beer into my hands.
After hours of old stories, even older jokes and much laughter the ladies excused themselves to the kitchen to prepare dinner. The men, with beers in hand, remained in the backyard to continue the conversation. I vaguely remember what we talked about, perhaps sports, perhaps politics; all that I know for sure was the mood was light and the beer was cold and going down easy.
Easy that is until the conversation shifted and my Uncle Gerry asked me a question that I will never forget. Staring me right in the eye with a serious expression on his face I heard the following words escape from his lips. “What is this I hear about all of this fairy nonsense?”
His words hit me like a punch to the stomach. I looked around hoping to find an ally in my Uncle Gary but he too starred at me as intently as Uncle Gerry did. He was not going to be the one to defuse this situation. For what seemed like an eternity, I sat in silence and tried to collect my thoughts. What could I say to this assault?
Inside I began to piece together a response. I would tell my Uncle Gerry that my being gay was not nonsense; that it had taken me years to accept myself, and if he wanted to be part of my life he would have to accept it as well. I would tell him that for the first time in my life I was in a committed relationship with someone special and because of that I was finally happy. I would then end the conversation - I decided - and leave the backyard by telling him that I didn’t need his approval and would rather not hear what he had to say about the matter.
Just as I was about to unleash this righteous tirade upon my Uncle Gerry he thankfully broke the silence before I could. “You know, the ferry from Toronto to Rochester. What do you think about that?”
(“Ferry” not “fairy”! Oh the dangerous subtleties of the English language.)
Uncle Gerry had no idea how close he came to getting an earful that night and I am so grateful that my response had taken me so long to compose. The evening would have turned out far differently had I been quicker on my feet. As it were, however, we had a nice meal and I left feeling loved and accepted despite the fact that no one dared to actually bring up the elephant in the room.
Sadly, my Uncle Gerry and Aunt Ruthie are no longer with us but I will always remember what they taught me that day. I was so scared that my extended family was going to judge me that I automatically assumed the worst of them. Sometimes, family can surprise you and teach you something. Perhaps it was me that was the judgmental one that afternoon and not my aunts and uncles. Coming out of the closet is such a huge event that one often thinks is just about you but my family has shown me that the ones you tell have just as much right to their reactions as you do. After all, they are just hearing and processing the news in a few minutes while the one coming out has had years to come to terms with who they are. Thankfully, that day no one reacted badly to my news but I have learned to be patient with people and hold my tirades in check until they have had some time to process my news and accept the person that I have become.
Permed Hair, Fedoras, and Pink Bicycles.
May 7th 2017
I don’t think that I was ever quite what my father expected me to be. When I was a boy, he assumed I would want to play sports like my two big brothers did. Every season my father would ask me what sport I would like to play, and every season I would tell him that all I wanted to do was draw pictures. I think my dad thought it was his duty to make sure his son was enrolled in some type of sport, so he dismissed my protests and insisted that I pick one to play. To please my father I reluctantly tried everything that he suggested: T-ball, softball, hockey, lacrosse, and even tennis but, to his dismay, discovered that I hated them all. By mid season, with every sport, I would sheepishly ask if I could quit but dad would insist that I stick it out. He probably hoped that I would change my mind and grow to love sports as much as my brothers did. But by the end of every season would come to realize that his youngest son’s heart just wasn’t in it. It must have been hard, in the beginning, for dad to relate to me. I saw him bond over sports with my two brothers but I denied him the opportunity to do that with me.
By the time I reached high school my father had given up trying to instill in me a love of sports. Instead - to his credit- he watched proudly as his son developed a passion for the arts. To him, I am sure my interest in theatre, ceramics and visual art were as alien as sports were to me but my dad never missed a chance to cheer me on. During my adolescence I went from being a very shy lonely teenager to an extremely vocal theatre kid. My father, for the most part, was a quiet man who never wanted to be singled out or noticed for being different, so I am sure it wasn’t easy when his son decided to really put himself out there and actively seek the spotlight.
It was during this time, though, that my father and I didn’t often see eye-to-eye. My father was a worrier. He worried about his health, money, his job; but most of all he worried about his kids. To my father, being different meant that you opened yourself up to being bullied or disliked so when I came home one night with my long hair permed he didn’t know what to do. My long hair, to start with, had been bad enough— but why on earth would I want to draw attention to myself by curling my hair? Looking back, I can see why my dad was upset: my hair was horrible! But at the time my hair was my identity and I wanted so much to be noticed. So I wore that hair-do, the one my best friend Toni did for me in her kitchen, with immense pride. That hair-do could not be ignored and so I soon developed the personality that was capable of pulling it off.
Every opportunity that my dad had to bring up the state of my hair he did. He pleaded with me to get it cut, or to at least get it styled, but that hair was my armour, and I refused to give in to his demands. Locked in this struggle neither of us tried to see the other’s point of view but both of us knew that it wasn’t really anything worth getting upset about.
However, and perhaps fueled by our ongoing disagreement, a new conflict soon reared its ugly head. One night, after pilfering my friend Tom’s fedora, I decided that I was going to wear it to the high school dance. My father, learning of my new fashion accessory, decided to put his foot down and forbade me from leaving the house with it on my head. To my bewilderment, he seemed genuinely angry with me that I wanted to wear the hat to the dance. I, of course, smuggled the hat out of the house when he wasn’t paying attention. At the time I truly didn’t understand why he was getting so angry with me. For some reason, that I couldn’t put my finger on at the time, he was afraid for me to wear that fedora out in public.
Back then I never internalized my father’s fears. I was brave and bold and apologized for nothing.
Although dismissive of my father’s fears and objections our relationship, nevertheless, proceeded quite smoothly until the summer before my senior year of high school. That summer I decided that I wanted to fix up my bike and repaint it. Announcing my plans to my father I asked him if he could take me to Canadian Tire so that I could buy some spray paint. Taking an interest in my project my dad asked me what colour I was planning on painting my bike. Without hesitation, I told him that I was planning to paint the first half black and the second half pink. At that moment my normally perpetually calm dad lost it. There was no way that his son was going to paint his bike pink. The anger that I witnessed when I wanted to wear the fedora to the dance returned and tripled in intensity. At that moment, I knew what I had unintentionally triggered. Pink meant something altogether different. Pink changed the game. He wasn’t afraid that I was going to be bullied for being different. He was afraid that I was giving him a sign that I was gay.
I never did paint my bike pink. And even though at the time I didn’t identify as being gay—nor do I believe that liking pink has anything to do with being gay— I got a pretty clear message that my dad wouldn’t be okay with that. I suppose that incident was part of the reason that I never did get the courage to tell him when I finally came out to myself.
I have often wondered how my dad would have reacted if I had told him that I was gay. I wonder if he would have accepted me and loved me even though I wasn’t exactly what he expected. After thinking long and hard about this question I found my answer to it in yet another memory about my father.
You see, when my dad had embraced my artistic side he worried about how I was going to make a living as an artist. Though he didn’t know much about the path I was choosing, he did know that it was going to be a struggle. One day he went to his foreman at Domtar, the paper plant he worked at in Cornwall, and asked him if there was anyway that they could reinstate the sign-painter job. Apparently, when my dad started at Domtar, they had a man who went around the plant painting signs and he thought that job would be perfect for his youngest son.
When my dad first told me about this job in high school, I thought it was another example of how he just didn’t get me. How could he possibly equate painting signs at a factory with being a real artist? In retrospect, I now see things very differently. Yes, my dad and I saw the world through different lenses but he never stopped trying to fit me into his world. Finding me a job at the paper plant was his way of trying to understand me, and what I wanted to do. I know in my heart, given this pattern, that he would have found a way to accept that I was gay. I may not have been what he expected but he spent his whole life adjusting his world in order to fit me in to it.
April 30th 2017
Ever since I was a little kid I have drawn pictures. I used to get up really early on Saturday mornings, sit myself on the floor at the coffee table in front of the TV, and draw the characters from my favourite cartoons. I would draw for hours, totally lost in my creative pursuits, barely taking the time to eat breakfast or lunch. I would draw so intently and with such passion that by lunchtime my fingers would ache from overuse. At that point my mom would usually step in turn off the TV and tell me it was time to go outside and play. I still have a huge callus on my index finger from those early days. You will be happy to hear that in my adulthood I have learned to stop drawing before my fingers start to ache.
In my 47th year not much has changed. I still enjoy watching cartoons, but now I spend my time drawing my own characters and not the ones that I see on TV. It may surprise you to know, however, that drawing doesn’t come easily for me. The pages that you see in my graphic novel are a result of numerous rough drawings, comprised of stacks of under-drawings that I produce in order to create a pleasing composition. My artistic process is one that I have honed over the years; one informed by my time in the Illustration program at OCAD University, and perfected by my experience as a freelance editorial illustrator.
To understand my process you first have to understand how I draw and perceive the world. Most of the artists that I know see the world in shape, volume and form. For some reason I see the world in linear form. In other words things seem flat to me--they are defined and held together by an undulating line not grounded and supported by shape, volume and form. This way of seeing things made my life drawing sessions at OCAD difficult and, at times, frustrating. Though I learned my anatomy lessons well, my drawings were never quite as good as my classmates who seemed to effortlessly recreate what they were seeing.
Things changed for me when I took a class from Bill Biddle, entitled “Constructing the Figure from Memory”. In that class I learned to construct the figure using basic shapes, and that is the fundamental principle that I now use in the creation of my work. The figures that I draw in my graphic novel are constructed first by using basic shapes and are completely imagined and not drawn from life. I build my drawings upon this foundation, which I suppose is why I have to do so many preliminary sketches. Plus a monster’s anatomy is sometimes hard to figure out.
To give you a better understanding of how I work let me take you through the steps of creating a page for the book.
Step 1: Thumbnail Sketch
On an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper I decide what the layout of the panels will be. Once I have decided on the layout template I do a very rough (thumbnail) sketch depicting the action in each of the panels. This opening sketch can be very loose - sometimes with figures constructed using only basic shapes- or can be very tight; showcasing lots of detail. This stage is where I do most of my thinking and composition building and it also serves as the first storyboard laying out the pace and viewpoints of each panel. At his stage I also have to make sure to leave dead space for the dialogue balloons.
Step 2: Linear Sketch
I take the thumbnail sketch blow it up in sections on a photocopier to 200%. Enlarging it allows me the opportunity to put in lots of details. Once I have copied it I assemble the sections and I utilize tracing paper to refine the rough sketches into finished drawings. At this stage, I often layer the tracing paper to refine the drawing until I can get it quite right. This allows me the opportunity to just retrace the sections of the drawing that are working and rework the sections that are not. I often use this technique to refine detail such as hands that are hard to position in a first draft. My studio is sometimes ankle deep in tracing paper by the end of this process.
Step 3: Final Illustration with Colour
In sections, I take the large-scale linear sketch and scan it into the computer. In Photoshop I piece the sections together and reduce the image back to its original size of 8.5 x 11. At this stage, using the mouse, I trace the image in black on a layer in Photoshop and once the image is traced I eliminate the bottom layer and flatten the image. This allows me to use the vector tool to drop in the colours and simulate the proper lighting of each panel. Once the colours are in place I usually have to retrace the outline to make sure it remains consistent. Those of you reading this are probably asking yourself “Why didn’t you use a pen and tablet?” Well, at the time I started this project that technology didn’t exist and to change mid-way through the book would have made the pages inconsistent. My process had to remain the same so the pages at the front of the book looked like the pages in the back.
Step 4: Finished Strip with Word Bubbles.
Once the colour is complete in another Photoshop document, I layout the word balloons and then cut and paste each balloon in the appropriate place in the strip.
As you can see, my process is somewhat labour-intensive. I imagine that most comic book artists have a more simplified process, but this is the one that works for me. On the next book I will probably invest in a pen and tablet and revise my process so that the work will not take as long to produce but, that said, I am proud of what I have produced regardless of the effort extended.
I don’t know if it is rare for little boys to get the chance to grow up and follow their childhood dreams but I was blessed to be able to follow mine. Thanks Mom for rubbing my fingers when they were sore. Thanks Bill for teaching me how to tap into my potential. Thanks Stacy for believing in me and supporting this project from the beginning.
April 23rd 2017
When I was in elementary school, I slept on a pull out couch in the living room because my childhood home did not have enough bedrooms to accommodate my three siblings and me. Often on Friday nights, my older brother Ricky would come home after a night of being out on the town and set himself up in the living room to watch TV. Though he kept the volume very low, he would often wake me up and I, in secret, would watch from under the bedcovers.
On one memorable Friday evening on a quest to find something to watch, Ricky came across Universal Picture’s classic monster movie Frankenstein. That night I watched that movie -almost from the beginning- not knowing that it would change my life forever. From beneath the safety of my covers I watched in horror as the movie played out. I had so many questions as the film progressed. Why was the movie in black and white? Would it change to colour like it did in The Wizard of Oz? Why were they stealing a body from a grave? And, why did Igor take an insane man’s brain from the hospital? Thankfully, when my brother decided to order a pizza my tummy told me it was time to alert him that I was actually awake.
Sharing his pizza with me, we watched the movie and Ricky answered all of my questions. He seemed to know everything about monsters and I soaked up his knowledge like a sponge. The horror that I had felt while watching the movie alone beneath the covers subsided and, instead of being scared, I now felt safe and honoured to be watching the movie with my brother. As the end credits rolled, I felt very conflicted about what I had seen. If the monster was the bad guy, why did I feel so bad when the angry villagers destroyed him?
With the movie over, my brother tucked me into bed, turned off the TV, and proceeded to go upstairs to his bedroom. Alone, the room seemed extra dark. But determined to be a big boy, I pulled the covers over my head and went back to sleep. I don’t know how long I slept or what woke me but I opened my eyes to a still dark room to find the Frankenstein monster standing in the entrance way to the living room. In that moment I forgot all about the sympathy that I felt for him and lay in the bed terrified. My instinct, of course, was to run to my mother but because the monster was in the doorway I knew he would get me before I could reach her. Instead, I decided to lay as still as possible so he wouldn’t see me and hope beyond hope that he would just go away.
The Frankenstein monster didn’t get me that night, but something very powerful ignited my imagination. There is something very special between a child and their first monster. Fear, sympathy and curiosity mixed together that night and the result ignited in me a passion for monsters that I have not been able to quench. I love monsters because I survived that night, by myself without my mother, and that experience showed me that I could take care of myself.
As I grew and started to process the idea that I might be gay, in my late 20s, I began to see monsters in a different way. The sympathy that I felt for them turned into empathy because I was afraid that society and my family would turn on me -much like the villagers turned on the Frankenstein monster- once I decided to come out of the closet. With this in mind when creating Justin Case and the Closet Monster, monsters became the best avatars to help struggling gay and lesbian people out of the closet because they themselves know what it is like to be marginalized. Monsters once showed me that I could take care of myself so I thought that it would be poetic if they did the same for the struggling characters in my book.
It Is About Being Gay.
April 16th 2017
Earlier this year I attended a workshop for artists about using social media and analytics to promote their work. At that workshop I shared with my classmates the reason I wrote Justin Case and the Closet Monster was because I had lost my father to Alzheimer’s disease before I was ready to tell him that I was gay. My book in essence is the conversation that I wish I had the courage to have had with my dad.
During the lunch break, a woman from the group came over to introduce herself. She was in her late 50s, nicely dressed, with a very kind face. I greeted her with a smile while she –without a moment’s hesitation-proceeded to tell me that she would never visit my website or even think of purchasing my book. Without even giving me a moment to react, she then suggested that when promoting my book I should refrain from revealing that it had anything to do with being gay.
Intrigued by this position, I let her continue. She was all for me telling people that my book was about something I was never able to share with my dad. That resonated with her. She told me that she had many things that she regretted not being able to share with her own dad. What she couldn’t wrap her head around was why anyone would feel it necessary to share their sexuality with their father. In fact she went on to tell me that she would never even think of discussing her sexuality with her dad. She believed that what she did with her husband was between them and was clearly disgusted that I would be willing to share those details with my own father.
At this point I wish I would have clarified that I too would not even dream of discussing the details of my sex life with my dad. I agree with her that the intimate moments that I share with my husband are private and I would be equally mortified discussing them with any member of my family. Telling my dad that I am gay, though, doesn’t reveal those intimate moments. It just tells him that they are different from the ones he experiences, or the ones that society tells him are normal.
In other words, she would never need to share her sexuality with her dad because she belongs to societies dominant orientation. She never has to have a conversation with her dad about her sexuality because he just assumes that she is straight. I suppose it is easy to turn your nose up at my need to share my sexuality with my dad if its something you never have to entertain doing yourself. I, on the other hand, do not conform to society’s dominant orientation, and for me to have my dad truly understand who I am I have to share it with him.
In hindsight it would have been wonderful to say all of that, but as you know things happen quite differently in the moment. In this moment, I put on my most non-confrontational voice and tried my very best to explain to her why I wish I would have had the courage to tell my dad that I was gay. “You see”, I told her, “my dad died without ever knowing I had someone in my life. He died thinking I was alone and keeping my sexuality from him kept him from knowing I was in a loving committed relationship. I will always regret not telling him and sharing with him that part of my life and I hope beyond hope that wherever he is now, he can see that I am not alone”.
For a moment I thought that I reached her, that I had somehow changed her mind, that my heartfelt speech had connected with something inside her. But I was wrong. She continued to try to convince that while promoting my book I should refrain from revealing that it had anything to do with my being gay. But were I to do that, I would be pulling a bait-and-switch move just so that I could sell more books, to people not interested in gay stories. Since my book is all about being honest and truthful, I could not possibly promote it in that way.
She just didn’t get it. There are far too few stories out there for gay people, their family and supporters. I do want my story to be read by everyone, but my book is about me being gay, not just about regretting missed opportunities with a deceased loved one.
Of course, my first reaction was to dismiss her and admit to myself that there are some people that will never change. But experiences with members of my own family have shown me that anyone can change given the right motivation. When you grow up gay you remember all the gay slurs you have heard growing up, and the ones that your family has spoken you remember most of all. But exposure to my husband, Stacy, and me has changed my family for the better and I know now that they deeply regret any misspoken words from the past. Each of them is a very important people in our lives, and I cannot imagine my life without their love and support. Maybe someday someone close to this woman will reveal to her that they are gay and, remembering me, my book, and our conversation, will help her empathize with that person.
April 6th 2017
Welcome to the website of Justin Case and the Closet Monster.
Starting on April 16th I will be posting a weekly blog.
Through this blog I will share with you - among other things - stories about what has inspired the book, memories about growing up gay, secrets about my artistic process and updates on my progress to self-publishing.
It is my hope that in sharing my thoughts I will enrich your appreciation of my work and if you haven’t already done so please visit my contact page and sign-up for my mailing list so that you won’t miss your chance to purchase the book once I have self-published it.